D-SLRs are definitely where the action is in digital photography. Sales of compact point-and-shoots may have hit a wall in this recession, but digital single-lens reflex cameras continue to do well as prices have come down and quality has gone up. The new full-frame Sony alpha DSLR-A900 is a great, albeit relatively expensive example when compared to the typical D-SLR with smaller APS-C sized sensors. This beefy camera has a 24.6-megapixel full-frame imaging device, and sells for “only” $2,999. The new Nikon D3X also has a similarly-sized sensor (made by Sony) and it costs a cool $7,999! Yeow! The D3X is an incredibly featured camera, obviously designed for pros whereas the A900 is for well-heeled enthusiasts—but not investors in Bernie Madoff’s funds. The closest current camera in terms of price and resolution is the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a 21.1MP full-frame edition for $2,699, a model we’ll be reviewing in the weeks ahead. All of these cameras have full-frame sensors, which means they’re the same size as a frame of 35mm film, eliminating the digital cropping factor on the other 95% D-SLRs out there using smaller APS-C imagers (typically 1.5x or 1.6x). Now, the focal length of the lens you attach is what you’ll capture, a true boon for wide-angle shooters. And the bigger sensor should increase overall quality with a minimal amount of digital noise. With those tidbits on the table it was time for us to test the A900 to see just how good a deal the camera is…
Features and Design
The all-black A900 is a beast—the body measures 6.1 x 4.67 x 3.25 (W x H x D, in inches), weighing 33.6 ounces with the battery and card. Add a lens like the f/2.8 24-70mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom supplied by Sony for this review, and the package hits 69.4 ounces, a hefty 4-plus pounds. And since this D-SLR does not have a built-in flash, you’ll probably buy one of them too, like the highly regarded Sony HVL-F58AM ($450). This was sent along as well. Pop in its four AAs and you’ll instantly realize this is a camera you won’t casually drop into your pocket for quickie snapshots like the Canon SD880 IS that costs one tenth the price. Clearly this is a camera for committed shutterbugs.
The front is dominated by the lens opening. It accepts all Sony glass as well as older Minolta A-type bayonet mount lenses. Although Sony is later to the D-SLR game than Canon and Nikon, there’s no shortage of lenses to choose from. Sony supplied a 24-70mm Carl Zeiss zoom for the test; it has a $1,749 MSRP. (Do some quick math and the camera, lens and flash add up to $5,197, the price of a 50-inch Pioneer Kuro HDTV. We told you this was for serious photographers.)
Also on the front is an AF assist lamp, lens release button, and a switch to change between focus types (auto, manual, burst and so on). There’s a flash sync terminal and a preview button on the lower edge of the lens mount (more on this cool key in the performance section). On the far right is the pistol grip, which we found comfortable. You should definitely heft it before purchase, though, since everyone’s hands are different. A few logos and the orange alpha symbol dot the faceplate, but they’re fairly unobtrusive. Nothing shouts the fact this is a 24.6-megapixel D-SLR, but savvy shooters will definitely know.
The top of the camera is basic as well. The shutter button is nicely placed on the pistol grip, as is a jog wheel for menu adjustments. There are dedicated buttons for white balance, ISO (100-6400) and exposure compensation (+/- 3EV). The drive key lets you move between single and burst mode, as well as bracketing options, and a mirror up option. Next to this grouping is a smallish LCD readout that shows limited readouts compared to the competition. The EOS 50D shows nine parameters, while the Sony shows four (aperture/shutter speed, battery power and shots left). There’s a reason for this tradeoff, and it’s right next to it—the viewfinder assembly—which is huge. One of the best features of this camera is the viewfinder, which has an amazingly bright 100% field of view. Hold it up to your eye and you’ll be as startled as we were—in a very positive way—when we first used the camera.
Since this a true photographer’s camera, you won’t find a built-in flash but there is a hot shoe on top of mirror assembly. To the far left is the mode dial and it’s as basic as can be. There’s auto, Program, Aperture and Shutter Priority as well as full Manual. There are three custom settings, but nary a scene mode to be found (portrait, landscape, sports and so on). There’s no Live View, or video, or any other “gimmicks”; this is really a shooter’s camera.
The back is dominated by a 3-inch LCD monitor with a fine 921K pixels, matching the best of the current D-SLR crop. Since there’s no Live View, it’s for menu adjustments and reviewing your shots. The display automatically adjusts as you move from horizontal to vertical shooting positions, a very handy feature. Above the monitor is the viewfinder, surrounded by a rubber eye cup; there’s a diopter control on the right to fine tune the display to your eyesight. Sensors directly below the viewfinder shut down the LCD when you bring it up to your eye, saving power. None of the other controls will surprise any photographer worth their pixels. On the left of the screen are a power on/off switch, menu, display, delete and playback. To the right is a joystick controller, C and Fn (function). C stands for creative style, which is the overall feel of the image ranging from standard, vivid, and neutral, to B&W. Under each of the headings, you can tweak contrast, saturation, sharpness, brightness and zone, which helps prevent images from becoming over- or underexposed. Function brings up the entire palette of adjustments depending on the mode you’ve chosen. It’s a tweaker’s delight.
Other rear controls include AEL (auto exposure lock), metering, another adjusting jog wheel, and another to engage SteadyShot, the built-in sensor shift stabilization system that helps eliminate blur with any lens you attach. Canon and Nikon make you pay extra for their stabilized glass.
The right side has the dual slot compartment for handling CF and Memory Stick Pro Duo cards. The left side compartments have the USB and min HDMI outs, DC-in and remote in. The bottom has the battery compartment and tripod mount. The battery is rated 880 shots per CIPA testing standards.
What’s In the Box
The DSLR-A900 comes with the basics. You get the body, battery and charger, strap, A/V and USB cables, and a remote. The software CD-ROM has Image Data Converter SR, Image Data Lightbox, SR Remote Camera Control (all Windows/Mac) and Picture Motion Browser (Windows only) to develop RAW files and manage your photos.
Since this camera is UDMA compliant, you should get a 4GB or greater UDMA-compliant CompactFlash card to get the most speed from the system. They’re only $40 or so, making it worthwhile—better yet, ask the retailer to throw in a few for free if you’re dropping $3,000 for a camera.
Once the battery was charged, a 4GB UDMA card loaded, the Zeiss lens and flash snapped into place, it was time to start shooting.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Performance and Use
Since this is a 24.6-megapixel camera, it saves 6046×4032 pixel files –a huge amount of data, especially if you’re shooting RAW. To speed things along, the A900 has dual BIONZ processors, so you can grab 5-frame-per-second bursts. It works for many seconds until the camera slows down a bit (12+ RAW images). This is pretty startling stuff—and all the more reason for using at least a 4-gig card, which holds only 105 images at the largest RAW setting.
We initially set the camera to auto, with maximum extra fine JPEG resolution, and in single shot mode. From there, it was time for high-speed burst and a wide variety of imaging options. As we mentioned earlier, this camera does not have any scene modes. Once you switch from automatic, depending on your skill level, this can be a little intimidating. But the owner’s manual is nicely written, and the menu system and on-body controls are relatively simple to operate.
You won’t find Live View or the fledgling baby steps for video in the Nikon D90 and Canon 5D Mark II. Sony did add very useful feature—Intelligent Preview. Say you’ve taken a shot and are not sure all of adjustments will result in good image. Hit the preview button near the lens and your image will appear with a histogram display on the right. Then you can adjust the white balance, dynamic range optimizer level and Exposure compensation. Check this tweaked image on the LCD and if you like it, press the shutter down and you’ve got a nicely exposed image. These settings remain, so make sure you use the preview again in different lighting situations. We found this to be an extremely useful tool.
Image Courtesy of Sony
We took loads of shots—and this is hardly a problem when you move into M16 mode and rip off a burst of images at five frames per second! Focusing was fast and quick. The camera’s auto focus system has nine wide-area sensors with 10 assist points, making quick work of static and moving subjects. After the fun stuff, it was time to download the photos and make some prints.
The results, as you’d imagine, were outstanding. The last time our mouths watered over the lushness and depth of color from digital images occurred when we shot with another full-frame D-SLR, the older Canon EOS 5D. There really is a major difference between sensors, and the pixel sizes therein (the more and bigger the better). It costs a bundle to get this quality but, hey, that’s life.
With 24.6MP images, we had no problems doing enlargements galore, and we enjoyed zeroing in on cats’ pupils, trying to discern a reflection. Colors were right on target, and the detail was just outstanding. We shot the entire ISO range, and noise starting showing up at ISO 1600, but even ISO 6400 output was useable for 8x10s.
The Sony alpha DLSR-A900 is a terrific camera. It’s clearly for serious photographers who want excellent quality and are interested in making large prints and/or severe crops. It’s easy to recommend, but alas, not so easy to pay for, since you’ll want a super-quality lens—and don’t forget the flash. If you want pure picture prowess, however, definitely consider the alpha A900.
• Beautiful 24.6MP stills
• Outstanding viewfinder
• Built-in image stabilization
• Intelligent Preview very helpful
• Easy to operate
• It’s still 3 grand; for serious photographers only
• Limited “cheat” modes
• Not weatherized like other uber D-SLRs
• Heavy and bulky
• ISO “only” hits 6400