It must be hard for Sony being number 3 or 4 when it comes to cameras, especially when it dominates just about every other category it enters—other than that little iPod thing the company wishes would go away. HDTVs? Sony is number one. Home audio? Camcorders? You guessed it. The list goes on but you get the idea. Sony wants to be a leader in whatever field it enters. As far as point-and-shoot digital cameras, Sony gives top-seller Canon a run for its money. Yet when it comes to more advanced and expensive D-SLRs, Canon and Nikon are the 1,000-pound gorillas in the room with Olympus, Pentax and Sony trying fiercely to make inroads (with little success, I might add). Not that the competitors have bad cameras, it’s just Canon and Nikon have sold millions of film SLRs and there are as many compatible lenses floating around. So when it came time for those film folks to go digital, it was only natural they stuck with the Big Two since they had investments in glass sitting in their closets. To capture some of these buyers, Sony introduced the alpha DSLR-A100 well over a year ago and I liked the 10-megapixel D-SLR (around $700 USD with an 18-70mm lens). It was based on the Konica Minolta 5D, whose D-SLR assets Sony bought around two years ago; that camera sold well but still is only a relatively small slice of the pie compared to the Big Two. As Digital Trends readers now, the megapixel race continues and 10MP seems so 2006 now that 12- to 21.1MP models are here. And so is the new DSLR-A700, a beefy 12.24MP camera with much speedier response (5 frames per second compared to 3 with the -A100). We got our hands on the alpha DSLR-A700, based on the Konica Minolta 7D (not a bad thing, by the way), and put it through its paces. To find out if Sony will continue to be a D-SLR also-ran, read on…
Features and Design
Pick up the DSLR-A700 and immediately you’ll know this a heavy-duty camera, not like the much lighter entry-level—and cheaper–D-SLRs such as the Canon Rebel XT or Nikon D40. Not that these are bad cameras just they’re in a different league. The alpha weighs 24.3 ounces for the body only (no battery or lens). When combined with a high-quality lens like the Carl Zeiss T* 16-105mm zoom and battery, you now have close to 3 pounds hanging around your neck. Like all D-SLRs carrying one is a commitment, not a spur of the moment thing like a Canon ELPH. Yet ELPHs and their ilk are for very different people—if you’re spending $1,399 USD for a camera body, you’re really into photography, expect a high-quality instrument and sore arms are just part of the fun.
The A700 looks like every other top-level D-SLR with its all-black magnesium alloy body and very comfortable indented hand grip. The front is dominated by the lens mount which is based on the Konica Minolta bayonet format. Along with the vast majority of older Minolta lenses, there is also a good selection of Carl Zeiss glass to choose from However you won’t find any ultra-expensive image stabilized lenses since this camera—like the A100—has built-in image stabilization, helping to eliminate blur from shots taken in low light. This money-saving feature is terrific and also found on the Olympus E-510 and Pentax K10D.
Beyond a few logos on the front you’ll also find an AF illuminator sensor, a depth of field preview button and a focus mode lever so you can switch between a Single shot, Continuous, Auto and Manual. Surprisingly Sony didn’t hype the 12.24MP resolution as manufacturers do with point-and-shoots. Guess there’s no need to brag…The camera
uses a newly-designed Exmor CMOS sensor that conducts analog-to-digital (A/D) signal conversion and dual noise reduction on the sensor itself. Noise reduction is applied to analog signals before A/D conversion and the resulting digital signals are then subject to a second round of noise reduction. The digital signals are then sent to the newly developed BIONZ processing engine. Sony claims the resulting images are incredibly noise-free but as always, the proof is in the prints (see Testing and Use).
The top of the –A700 is very nicely laid out with dedicated buttons for key settings such as white balance, ISO, drive mode and exposure compensation. On the pistol grip are the shutter and a scroll wheel to also make menu adjustments. The flash cover has to be manually raised and acts as the pulsing illuminator lamp in low light. There’s a cover on the hot shoe and on the far left is a large mode dial. Here you can move into Auto, Manual, Aperture- and Shutter Priority as well as six scenes modes (portrait, landscape, macro and so on). You’ll also find a Memory Recall option so you can quickly return to three favorite settings with 31 options for each one. Whew!
Image Courtesy of Sony
The back is also loaded with options. There’s a nice 3-inch LCD screen rated a fine 921K pixels for reviewing your shots. This camera does not have Live View as do many competing D-SLRs in this price range and for me that’s no great loss; I’m not a big fan of the way Live View is currently implemented—way too slow although I haven’t used Canon’s new EOS 40D which supposedly does it better.
Flanking the LCD on the left are the usual D-SLR controls: dedicated menu, display, delete and playback buttons. The power on/off is on the top left. Moving to the right of the screen are Function (Fn) and C buttons. Function moves you through the setting options (too many to list here) and the C (for Custom) key takes you to Creative Styles (Standard, Vivid, B&W and so on) plus you can assign a specific control to it. Next to these controls is the Super SteadyShot on/off switch. This camera has image stabilization built into the body itself so every lens you attach is stabilized; no need to spend a fortune on specific stabilized lenses a la Canon and Nikon. You’ll also find a four-way controller with joystick control, an AEL button and toggle to change between three metering modes (multi segment, center weighted, spot). There’s an AF/MF button that also enlarges images when you’re in playback mode. The viewfinder has a diopter control as well as sensors that power down the LCD when you lift the camera to eye level.
The right side has the memory card compartment with separate slots for CompactFlash and Memory Stick Duo cards. The left side has a compartment for HDMI and USB out, as well as inputs for a remote control, DC-in and a flash sync terminal. On the bottom is the battery compartment.
Bottom line? This is an extremely sophisticated D-SLR as one would expect for $1,399 USD list for the body alone.
The alpha DSLR-A700 comes with the basics including the battery, charger, strap, body caps and cables (not HDMI, of course). It has a decent 180-page printed User’s Guide. The CD ROM includes Picture Motion Browser, Image Data Converter SR, Image Data Lightbox and Remote Camera Control programs. Image Data Converter “develops” your RAW files.
Sony supplied a Carl Zeiss 16-105mm lens that translates to a 25.6-168mm because of the 1.6x digital factor. This lens costs $579 by itself or $1,899 USD when bundled with the A700, an $80 savings. Nothing to sneeze at but we’re in Lexus territory here along with EOS 40D and Nikon D80. After charging the battery and loading an 8GB 133x Kingston CF card it was time to see how the camera performed.
Testing and Use
The Sony DSLR-A700 is easy to shoot right out of the box in Auto but it’s a shame to do so with all the variables at your fingertips. I started off in highest-res JPEG mode, Super SteadyShot on, center weighted metering and all other settings in auto. Initially keeping the D-Range Optimizer in Advanced Auto I moved to the five options while shooting indoors.
Taking photos with this camera is a joy. It felt solid, nicely balanced with the 16-105mm lens and, as noted, the controls are readily available. The large LCD makes it easy to move through the various options. Go to your local retailer and heft this baby and you’ll see what we mean. Good ergonomics is one thing but what about the images? Glad you asked. Since it was late fall, the leaves in New Jersey finally got some color and it was time to see if the new alpha could capture all the nuances. I also put the camera in continuous mode and it felt like it hit its 5 frame per second spec. This camera is fast and it was fun shooting falling leaves blowing in a stiff breeze. Beyond the outdoors, I also took many shots indoors with the various DRO options, using macro and so on.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Once done the images were transferred to a PC and 8.5×11 prints were made with zero tweaking from either the camera or the printer. I have to admit these were the best images I’ve gotten from a digital camera in a long time—probably since the Canon EOS 5D, a $3,000 USD full-frame 12MP D-SLR. Those prints were magical but the alpha’s came pretty close. The camera captured the rich blue skies with contrasting yellow leaves and puffy clouds with barely a hint of noise. A macro shot of an orchid was so natural it was tempting to sniff the print. Another of an artificial flower even showed the wisp of errant cat fur. Taken in available light the shots didn’t show any shakes thanks to the built-in stabilizer. Granted not everything was fantastic as the DRO should be used judicially as it introduced noise and dulled detail. Also the camera hits 6400 ISO but I felt that stopped being useful at 2500 (which is still very good).
Let’s welcome Sony to the top ranks of the D-SLR universe. The alpha DSLR-A700 is an excellent camera and I recommend it without reservation. Although I used it with a killer lens available in a $1,800 USD kit, the camera performed at those nose-bleed prices. In other words, you won’t feel stiffed if you lay down that much cash. I really want to get my hands on the 10MP Canon EOS 40D ($1,299 USD body only) and the new 12MP Nikon D300 ($1,799 USD body only) to see if Sony really has a tops in class camera on its hands. In the meantime, if you don’t have a major investment in Canon or Nikon glass put this one at the top of the list.
• Excellent photos
• Fast response (5 fps)
• Built-in stabilization
• Noise at very high ISOs