Sony started an immense advertising campaign in Summer 2006 to promote its new product - Sony Alpha DSLR-A100. So much pathos: remember the slogan about the birth of a supernova? Posters depicting an explosion or an eclipse hypercharged the boom around the new camera. It couldn't have been otherwise - the A-100 is the first reflex camera from Sony.
Interestingly, the camera is a direct descendant of the Minolta Alpha 7000, launched on the Japanese market in 1985. We can say that the auto focus system and the 44.5mm AF bayonet joint were inherited from this very camera. I don't see any resemblance with reflex cameras from Konica (a note from the RWPBB editor).
The Sony A-100 resembles much Dynax reflex cameras from Konica Minolta, especially the 5D model. And there is nothing surprising about it. Back in 2005 Sony and Konica Minolta announced their alliance in the field of digital reflex cameras. And then the company announces Withdrawal Plan for Camera Business and Photo Business in Autumn 2007. The A-100 borrowed its lenses, flash, and Anti-Shake from Dynax cameras. Their designs are practically identical.
Electronics and batteries are designed by Sony. And the 10 Mp CCD sensor, 23.6 x 15.8 mm, resembles the one used in the Nikon D80 and more expensive Nikon D200.
The camera is compatible with Minolta lenses, A-type bayonets. Many characteristics copy Konica Minolta 5D. There are only two major differences: different sensors and maximum ISO in the A-100 is twice as low – 1600 versus 3200.
We got the camera with the promotional bundle. That is no boxes. But we got a lens support and the camera itself. Production-line samples will come with the following bundle:
** - included into Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 Kit
Exterior and Usability
The front panel houses Self-Timer lamp, the lens release button, the preview button, and the bayonet lens mount. The camera uses the A-type bayonet, a lens is connected to the camera both electrically (8 contacts) and mechanically (auto focus control). The left side bulges out. It's covered with a rubber insert with indentations for fingers for better grip. The camera is convenient to hold in one hand. But shooting with one hand is possible only in Auto mode, as many parameters can be configured only with the dial.
The top panel contains the Exposure Mode Dial (Auto, Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Night Portrait, Sunset, Sports, Macro, Landscape, Portrait), the Function dial and button in the center (Exposure Metering Mode, Flash Mode, Focus Zone and Mode, ISO, White Balance, D-Range Optimizer, Color), Drive Mode button, Shutter Release button, and Front Control Dial (it controls shutter speed, when used with the AV button, it also controls aperture or exposure in automatic and semi-automatic modes).
Controls on the rear panel are divided into two groups around the display and the viewfinder.
The Menu, Display, Delete and Playback buttons are to the left of the display. Right of the display, we can see an eight-way joystick (it can move in diagonal directions) with the OK button in the center, Super SteadyShot switch, the wired remote jack, and a memory card activity indicator.
The power switch is located to the left of the viewfinder. AV and AE Lock buttons are to the right, they are used for zooming photos in playback mode. There is an information display under the viewfinder that shows Exposure, Aperture, ISO, AE Lock, Shutter Speed, Shake Warning, and Flash Status. Unfortunately, it does not display much information.
There are two sensors under the viewfinder, one of them disables the display, the other activates auto focus. Diopter Control Dial is on the right.
The bottom panel contains a battery compartment and a tripod mount, unfortunately without a lock.
The left side accommodates the DC In jack under a rubber lid and the Manual / Auto focus switch.
Camera's right side has a Compact Flash memory card slot, covered by a spring-loaded door, and micro-USB. The latter connector is used to connect the camera to a computer and video devices. So you cannot connect it to several devices simultaneously. The location is also not very convenient.
Super SteadyShot is either a descendant or a clone of Anti-Shake, or a similar function from Sony. But it works just like in Konica Minolta cameras. The camera has a built-in gyro. The sensor can move in horizontal and vertical planes compensating for camera movement when you take a photo. So you can use longer exposures and still get sharp pictures. The information display on the viewfinder contains the Anti-Shake scale – indicating how much you camera is shaken. In case of long exposures, you can even here the gyro humming.
The first time we needed to use a flash in auto flash mode, it failed. It turned out that the flash wouldn't open automatically (it's mentioned in the manual, but we hadn't read it at first). There is also no button to pop up the flash and it's not very convenient to open it. The flash is equipped with a very hard open/close mechanism. When you close the flash, the flash hits the body hard. So you'd better hold it back to soften the hit. You can use external flashes made by Konica Minolta or Sony, designed for this model. The latter are compatible with Konica Minolta cameras. The camera is not compatible with Sony R1 flashes!
We used the same collage for testing noises as we used for the Olympus E-500. These cameras are in different price segments. But considering that inexpensive Nikon D70 and Canon EOS 350D will soon be edged out by their successors (Nikon D80 and Canon EOS 400D), Olympus E-500 may still get in the same list of cameras below $1000.
You can have a look at the photos used for analyzing noise here.
Noises at ISO 100-200 are practically identical. They are very low. They are also on a low level at ISO 400. ISO 800 can be used without deteriorating image quality much, but the noise will get noticeable. ISO 1600 can be used, only if it's really necessary in unusual situations, when you cannot use a flash, but the lighting is insufficient.
We photographed the test chart at three meters, diameter of the test chart is 13 cm. It was illuminated with two fluorescent lamps (14 Watt). Test chart in the center of the photo is on the left, test chart in the upper right corner of the photo is published on the right. Focal distance = 18 mm.
You can have a look at the photos here.
The camera uses the Sony NP-FM55H battery, 7.3V, 11.5 W/h, made in Japan. But the camera itself is made in Malaysia. According to the CIPA standards, the camera can take 750 photos. But in practice we managed to take about 820 photos without using flash and with disabled display. In mixed mode we got 600, where only 160 photos were taken with a flash. Active usage will deplete the battery for no more than four days. The result is not impressive, but good.
It takes 1.2 sec to take the first shot after power on. Auto focus is really fast (less than 0.4 seconds). But sometimes auto focus fails and starts from the very beginning, this process may take 1.5-2 seconds.
In our tests we used Transcend CompactFlash 1GB 80x. Even though the card was slow, we got good results.
Software and Drivers
There is not much additional software, considering the powerful advertising campaign and lots of booklets in the bundle. We'd like to have more programs.
Even though it is the first dSLR with interchangeable lenses from Sony, the Sony Alfa A-100 is not a new camera – it's a remake of the Konica Minolta Dynax 5D with all the ensuing consequences. The alpha is not compatible with flashes from other Sony cameras. But it can accommodate Konica Minolta accessories of the Dynax series. It concerns not only flashes – you can also use Dynax lenses, as they also use the A-bayonet. Together with the camera, Sony presented its own series of lenses, flashes, and many other accessories. So you shouldn't feel shortage of accessories.
The Sony Alfa A-100 has serious rivals - Canon 400D and Nikon D80. The latter is equipped with the 23.6 x 15.8 mm CCD sensor as well. The key advantage of the A-100 over its competitors is relatively low prices for Super SteadyShot lenses, which cannot be said about Canon lenses of the IS series. If you choose between these two cameras, the main criterion will probably be what lenses you already have. If you have no lenses so far, you should consider the Sony Alfa.
Sergei Verveiko (firstname.lastname@example.org)
November 2, 2006
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