Sony have been making compact digital cameras for some time…in fact, their ‘Mavica’ was the first camera to digitally record images. But until recently, they had never produced a digital SLR. So in 2005, when they decided it was time to enter this highly specialised market, rather than develop a new camera from scratch, they bought into it, by acquiring one of the world’s most successful SLR companies, Konica Minolta. At the time, the photographic world was up in arms, predicting all sorts of doom and destruction. But as it turns out, the doom mongers were wrong, as the Alpha 100 bears testament to the best that both companies have to offer.
Sensibly, Sony have decided to base the design of the Alpha upon Minolta’s extremely popular Dynax system, which has been around for almost 20 years. Even more sensibly, the Alpha’s new lens mount is backwardly compatible with Minolta ‘A’ mount lenses. So although there is a new range of Sony…and far more importantly, Carl Zeiss lenses, anyone who has a collection of ‘A’ mount lenses, will be able to continue to use them with this camera, albeit with a 1.5 x multiplication factor courtesy of its 23.6 x 15.8mm 10.2 million pixel CCD.
Yup, that’s 10.2 million pixels…in a camera that’s currently retailing for less than 500UKP. When the Alpha was originally released, last year, that was far more pixels per pound than any DSLR on the market and since then, other major manufacturers have been forced to follow suit, so congratulations to Sony for driving down prices whilst driving up specs. Let’s hope they continue to do so aggressively.
ISO speeds on offer range from 100-1600 (in single stop increments). Unfortunately there is no 3200 ISO setting. Fortunately, the camera handles well in low light.
Shutter speeds are comprehensively catered for with everything from 30-1/4000sec on offer and although the top flash sync speed of 1/160sec (which drops to 1/125sec with the camera’s image stabilisation switched on) is not sufficiently fast for fill in flash in strongly backlit situations, this is mitigated by the Alpha’s ability to sync at all shutter speeds when used with its built in pop up flash or a dedicated gun.
Other flash options include rear curtain sync, which enables you to produce natural looking motion and light trails when using ‘slow sync’ flash with long exposures; flash compensation, which increases or reduces flash output by up to 2 stops in 1/3 stop increments; and wireless flash, which lets you trigger off camera flash wirelessly…something not found on some far more expensive cameras!
I mentioned the Alpha’s image stabilisation above. Although Sony refer to this by the ‘Super SteadyShot’ moniker used in some of their compacts, it is actually an improved version of Minolta’s Anti-Shake system, which physically shifts the camera’s CCD by minute amounts to compensate for any motion that an inbuilt sensor detects. Sony claim that this allows the camera to be used at shutter speeds of 2 – 3.5 stops slower than would otherwise be possible. Although 3.5 stops might be slightly overstating the case (depending upon how critical your image requirements are), it is nevertheless extremely effective and also gives Alpha users a huge advantage, because unlike rival systems, which offer a small range of expensive image stabilised lenses, every lens attached to the Alpha, whether a brand new Carl Zeiss optic, or a twenty year old ‘A’ mount lens, will be automatically image stabilised.
The other advantage of this system is that it offers a method of automatic sensor cleaning. In addition to being protected by a low-pass filter that has an indium tin oxide anti-static coating, every time you switch off the Alpha, it shakes the CCD, to remove any dust that may have settled. You can also manually instigate sensor cleaning at any time (for example after changing a lens, or before a critical shoot) via the camera’s menu.
A switch by the side of the lens lets you switch between automatic and manual focus. In automatic there is a choice of ‘Wide AF Area’, in which the camera determines which of the nine sensors placed around the centre third of the frame is used as a focus point; ‘Focus Area Selection’, which allows you to decide which of these nine sensors to use; and ‘Spot Area AF’, which automatically uses the centre sensor.
Metering is courtesy of a 40 zone honeycomb system offering ‘multi-segment’, ‘centre-weighted’ and ‘spot’ options, with exposure compensation of plus/minus two stops, in 1/3stop increments and exposures can be shot continuously or frame by frame with a bracket of plus/minus 0.3 or 0.7 (but not 1) EV. A ‘Digital Range Optimiser’ functions offers automatic contrast control on a global or local level.
White balance can be set to automatic; manually adjusted from 2500 Kelvin – 9900 Kelvin (which covers practically every situation except for candlelight and shooting cloud formations in the middle of the Outback at midday); or one of six presets can be selected, ‘daylight’, ‘shade’, ‘cloudy’, ‘tungsten’, ‘fluorescent’ and ‘flash’, (each of which can then be adjusted manually).
Two main colour spaces are offered, the default sRGB and Adobe RGB. There are also several preset colour spaces comprising ‘Vivid’, ‘Portrait’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Night View’ and ‘B&W’.
As you would expect, there are five main exposure modes, ‘Shutter Priority’, ‘Aperture Priority’, ‘Program Auto’ (with selectable aperture or shutter shift), ‘Automatic’ and ‘Manual’. There are also seven ‘scene selection’ modes, ‘Portrait’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Macro’, ‘Sports action’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Night Portrait’ and ‘Night View’…for people who don’t understand how to use a camera.
Layout and Handling
The Alpha may not be the world’s best looking camera (though it’s certainly an improvement on the Dynax range), but it sits almost as nicely in the hand as a bagel. Compact and lightweight yet sturdy, it feels well balanced with the supplied 18-70mm f3.5-5.6 and the rather lengthy 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 Chinese made lenses and most of its controls fall naturally under the fingers and thumbs.
On top of the camera’s grip are the exposure adjustment wheel and shutter button. On the right hand side of its top are the mode dial and multi-exposure/self timer button; to the left is a second dial with offering settings for flash, focus, ISO, white balance, D-R (Digital Range Optimiser), metering mode and colour.
At first this second dial may seem a little daunting, but it actually turns out to be incredibly user friendly. Instead of messing around with menus, you simply turn it to the parameter you want to adjust, press the function button in its centre to activate said function, which results in a range of options being displayed on the very large, bright 2.5 inch, 230,000 pixel LCD display at the back of the camera. Adjustments can then be made using the up/down/left/right bits (that’s the technical term) of the controller wheel to the right of this display. Because each function only takes up one screen, there is no scrolling or multiple page selection required, meaning that parameters can be adjusted in seconds.
Having said that, there is a menu button to the left of the LCD window, which does cycle through five pages of single screen menus, but these are primarily things which will be setup once and then left alone or altered only very occasionally.
Below the menu button is the display button, which toggles between standard sized text, enlarged text and no display (to conserve battery life), a delete button and a playback button. During playback, each time you press the display button, the screen changes between the single image and index (file browser) screens, the latter allowing you to view and navigate six frames at a time.
Above these buttons is the camera power on/off switch. To the right of the viewfinder is a nicely inset diopter adjustment wheel and to its right are the exposure compensation button and auto exposure lock/slow sync button. When viewing images, these double up as magnification plus/minus buttons for the image which can be navigated around by using the controller wheel, which also allows you to view the histogram and to flip the orientation of the image. This is where is starts to get slightly confusing and where a couple of extra buttons wouldn’t have gone amiss…
Rounding off the selections of buttons, is the Super Steady Shot switch (next to the controller wheel), the depth of field preview button (conveniently located to the bottom right of the lens) and the lens change button (to its left).
For the most part, handling is excellent. However I do have two issues. Firstly, the flash doesn’t automatically pop up. In some respects this is good, in others it is bad. I’d like to be able to choose with a menu or preferably a switch. Secondly…and far more seriously is my issue with the focussing.
In auto focus (regardless of what sensor configuration you choose), the camera is continually focusing…like a video camera, rather than an autofocus SLR. I found this incredibly annoying. Firstly it is distracting, both for the photographer and the subject (unless the subject is a still life). Secondly it is a waste of battery life and thirdly, it offers little control over what the camera is focussing on. I want a camera to autofocus on what I tell it when I put it to my eye and depress its shutter halfway (like practically every other autofocus SLR & DSLR on the planet), not have it dictate to me what it intends to focus on, before I’ve even started the process.
Of course, you can switch to manual…but there’s no split image focussing in the viewfinder, making it reminiscent of focussing with a Hasselblad…i.e. a major hassle. Worse still, neither of the supplied lenses have distance markings, which is completely unforgivable on a camera at this price point.
In every other respect though, the viewfinder is a pleasure to use and unlike some SLRs, offers just the right balance of information without crowding out your view with indecipherable symbols and needless numerical readouts.
Unlike most of their rivals, Sony have considerable expertise in both CCD and electronics design and manufacture and this really shows in the quality of the images produced by the Alpha’s imaging chip and its Bionz processor.
I tested this camera comprehensively in conditions ranging from strong sunlight and dull overcast exteriors, to long night time exposures of London and nightclub interiors where there were multicoloured artificial lighting sources (with and without fill in and slow sync flash).
Sony 18-70mm f3.5-5.6 Lens
Available mixed artifical light sources at night.
Regardless of what I threw at it, metering and auto white balance were always spot on and colour reproduction was surprisingly accurate for a digital camera. The only two exceptions were strongly backlit outdoor scenes, with lots of sky, which I found were consistently underexposed by one stop (which was fine, as I always compensated accordingly) and dimly tungsten lit domestic interiors, which required manual colour balancing/correcting, as they exhibited the colour balance one would expect of uncorrected film (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
Sony 18-70mm f3.5-5.6 Lens at 18mm
Super SteadyShot gave equally impressive results, keeping everything sharp at low ISOs and long exposures, even when using the long end of the camera’s 70-300mm kit lens. As for dust, there wasn’t any, despite regular lens changes in all sorts of conditions, proving the dual worth of this system.
Sony 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 Lens at 300mm
Sony 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 Lens at 300mm
Battery life was easily the best of any camera I have used. Sony claim 750 shots on a full charge. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know, as I found that I filled up my SanDisk Extreme III 2.0GB CF card long before I ever ran out of power, even when regularly using flash and reviewing images. In fact, I was able to use the camera on multiple shoots before it needed a recharge, so I suspect that Sony aren’t exaggerating. Write speeds were very fast, with the exception of long exposures, which required extra processing time and resulted in larger file sizes.
Sony 18-70mm f3.5-5.6 Lens
‘Eclectic Method’ DJing & VJing at The AV Social
Amongst a barrage of tests, the toughest challenge I put this camera through had to be a shoot at The AV Social, an uber trendy London club night featuring the world’s top VJs. Despite hot, sweaty, cramped, dimly lit conditions, with constantly changing multi coloured light sources and projections, the Alpha 100 performed flawlessly. Super SteadyShot was an absolute godsend, enabling slow hand held exposures that retained the ambience of the club’s lighting and the built in flash proved its worth by delivering some excellent slow sync pictures. Although, in some very dark close up situations, fill in flash was slightly overpowering, it was certainly not as over zealous as many other cameras would have been and in any case the Alpha’s flash compensation…or my preferred solution, a sliver of ND gel carefully clipped in place over the flash head, quickly resolved this. In fact, the resulting stills were so good, that some were included in the first episode of MCTV, which I and my trusty cameraman Chris were there to shoot…with Sony’s excellent PD-170P mini DV camera no less…the footage from which they intercut with seamlessly, without the need for any post production…as you can judge for yourself here.
The Sony Alpha is not perfect…and nor is any other digital camera. Lack of a top speed of ISO 3200 does have its limitations…as do the supplied kit lenses. Nevertheless it is a massive achievement and one of which Sony (and Minolta and Konica) should be proud…particularly when you stop to consider that this is only their first camera. If I was any other DSLR manufacturer, right now I would be very scared!
Excellent handling, exposure and white balance put this camera on a par with many of its more expensive competitors. Throw in its superb battery life, Super SteadyShot and forthcoming range of Carl Zeiss lenses and it leaves many of its rivals in the dust. If I were in the market for a non full frame sensor DSLR, the Sony Alpha 100 would be at the very top of my list.
More info: www.sony.co.uk
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