Sony's first digital SLR looks like one of the most exciting and innovative newcomers to arrive on the scene for some time. With ten-million pixels, built-in anti-shake and 20 new lenses on the way, Sony has hit the ground running.
Behind the scenes, though, there's another story which puts everything into context. In July 2005, Konica Minolta and Sony made an announcement that they would be jointly developing a digital SLR system. That might have raised a few eyebrows, given that both companies were rivals in the digital camera market, but it wouldn't be the first time such a partnership had been forged.
But then in January 2006 Konica Minolta made the shock announcement that it was withdrawing from the digital camera market altogether and that Sony would take over its SLR business. At the time, Konica Minolta was making the likeable and rather interesting 6Mp Dynax 5D digital SLR, and it was disappointing to think it might disappear.
Well it hasn't, not exactly. Let's put it this way. The A100 is exactly what you might get if you decided to take a Dynax 5D and put in a higher-resolution sensor, upgrade the image processing and apply a cosmetic makeover. No doubt there's a lot more that's gone on inside that we don't know about, but the end result looks and feels very much like the old Konica Minolta Dynax 5D.
There's a good side and a bad side to this. The body is compact, sturdy and - small though it is - not quite as cramped as Canon's EOS 350D. Yes, it's plastic, but the finish is good, the camera feels solid and robust and the controls are nice - the minor controls, especially, have a better finish than those on the Dynax. There have also been some changes to the control layout, which we'll come to shortly. The 2.5-inch LCD on the back has enough pixels (230,000) to produce a really sharp, bright display, both during image playback and when making adjustments to the camera settings while shooting.
Shaken not stirred
On the bad side, the A100's startup and shutdown times are a fraction slower than those of its rivals, and accompanied by the same bizarre internal clanking and shunting that was such a feature of the Dynax 5D.
We won't stress the similarities of these two cameras any more since few users would have encountered a Dynax 5D anyway, and we'll be approaching the A100's design from a completely fresh perspective.
We imagine that all the mechanical noise is connected with the A100's CCD-shifting, antishake system (Pentax employs something similar in its new K100D digital SLR reviewed on p52). This aims to offset the effects of camera shake at slower shutter speeds by detecting and measuring movement and then compensating with opposite movements of the sensor. It's claimed this enables you to use a shutter speed up to 3.5x slower than usual without incurring camera shake.
Other manufacturers, notably Nikon and Canon, offer image stabilisation systems which are built into specific lenses rather than the camera body. Canon's image stabilized ('IS') and Nikon's vibration reduction ('VR') lenses are expensive, whereas the Alpha's system potentially extends the advantages of image stabilisation to any lens. It works well, too, as long as you remember that it improves your odds of getting a sharp shot without actually offering any guarantees.
The other thing with image stabilisation systems, of course, is that they can counter camera movement but not moving subjects. Sometimes higher ISOs are the only answer.
Sony has introduced another trick, though. One of the problems of digital SLRs is that dust can alight on the sensor and leave dark spots on every photo. The Alpha's sensor has an anti-static coating to help prevent this and uses the anti-shake mechanism to vibrate the sensor briefly in an attempt to dislodge any dust that may have settled on it.
The A100 is so new to the market that it could be some time before we get an idea of how effective this function is proving to be. Olympus already uses a similar system in its SLRs and seems it seems to have met with user approval.
More is better?
The Sony was the first digital SLR with a 10Mp sensor to go on sale for under £1,000. It's not the only one now, of course. The recent announcement of new 10Mp models from Nikon, Canon and Olympus have quickly taken away that distinction.
In the compact digital camera market, continually escalating pixel counts are a mixed blessing because they can bring increased noise and, all too often, the 'smearing' effect of the noise-reduction software needed to counter it. Images don't necessarily have any more detail than more modest cameras can provide. But digital SLRs have physically much larger sensors, and so there's still scope for cramming in a few more pixels.
So it's worth paying extra to get a 10Mp SLR rather than, say, a 6Mp or an 8Mp model... though this does depend on how large you think you want to blow up your pictures and how good the camera's lens is.
Unfortunately, the lens provided with the Alpha 100 isn't great. Physically, it appears identical to the 18-70mm lens fitted to the Dynax 5D, though of course the branding is different. On the A100 it's sharp enough in the centre, but softens significantly towards the corners of the frame and exhibits some stronger than average chromatic aberration towards the edges too. Oddly, that wasn't something we noticed with the Dynax 5D.
It's not a bad lens. You'd have to be quite picky to find fault with it, but if you've deliberately paid a price premium to get a camera with higher-than-average resolution, you might be inclined towards pickiness.
Enough about the lens, what about the pictures? The A100 does produce some very punchy, colourful, bright shots. It uses Sony's new 'BIONZ' (pardon?) processing system to handle the camera's large 10Mp files quickly and, indeed, it can shoot continuously at 3fps until the memory card is completely full.
This performance is achieved when shooting JPEG files, but the A100 can also shoot in RAW format (you get conversion software included with the camera) as well as RAW and JPEG at the same time. The RAW files aren't that big considering the resolution, either, coming out at 7-9Mb in our tests.
We've no complaints at all over the white balance system. It produced clean, natural-looking colours in all kinds of daylight and worked much better than most under artificial lighting too.
The 40-zone multi-pattern metering system is a slightly different story. It's clever enough to spot heavily backlit subjects, and adjust the exposure accordingly, but sometimes it goes just a bit too far, leaving you with generally overexposed images. Worse still, it's not entirely predictable - a slight shift in viewpoint can produce a big difference in the exposure value. You'll always get a usable shot, but more experienced photographers might prefer to switch to the cruder but more predictable centre-weighted metering mode.
One of the key points about the A100 is that this kind of adjustment is easy. The function dial on the top offers quick access to the metering pattern, flash mode, focus mode, ISO, white balance, dynamic range and colour settings. This is much better than the tedious plod through the menus that you're forced to endure on some other cameras.
Ah yes, that 'dynamic range' option. The Dynamic Range Optimiser is designed to lighten shadowed areas in your shots that might otherwise come out too dark. The technology, interestingly, is supplied by a company called Apical, which also developed Nikon's similar 'D-Lighting' system.
There are differences. With Nikon's system, the correction is applied retrospectively to saved images. Here, it's applied while the image is being processed. There are three settings: Off, Standard and Advanced. In Standard mode, the image is lightened and tweaked as a whole. In Advanced mode, only selected areas are darkened. However, in our tests (and we compared all three modes on a number of occasions), it made virtually no difference at all. Either the conditions where it's useful are more specific than we might imagine, or else it needs a bit of a rethink...
We ought to mention the camera's clever 'eye-start' system, though. An infrared sensor located directly below the viewfinder can automatically detect the moment you put the camera to your eye and then it activates both the AF system and the metering system. Your shots are therefore 'pre-focused' almost as soon as you look through the viewfinder, which should at least shorten the focusing travel when you take the shot.
Unfortunately the system will also detect the movement of your body if you hold the camera at your side when it's not in use, causing the camera's autofocus system to chug away constantly - but you can switch it off if this proves annoying. The A100's battery life is especially good. It can take around 750 shots on a single charge of the lithium-ion cell, and that's easily enough for a whole day's shooting, and maybe even an entire holiday.
The Sony Alpha 100 is undoubtedly a wellspecified camera. On paper, its specifications are verging on the 'must-have'. Unfortunately, in use, it doesn't seem quite as impressive. The mechanical noise is off-putting and the image quality is more of a step forward from 6Mp cameras rather than a giant leap.
The occasionally wayward multi-pattern metering dampens your enthusiasm and that Dynamic Range Optimiser really didn't seem to do much at all. It will all come down to price and feature comparisons. If you want the best 'on paper' camera and kit lens combo for £600, this is undoubtedly it. But there are lots of other ways to spend £600: like a Nikon D50 or Olympus E-500 twin lens kit - both almost as sharp while being twice as versatile. Or you could put your money towards a Nikon D80. Rod Lawton