Sony alpha DSLR-A900

Introduction

And you thought the megapixel wars were over! Earlier this year Sony announced it had designed a full-frame 24-megapixel imaging device and officially stated a camera featuring this chip would arrive later in 2008. Well, that time is here. Sony officially took the wraps off the alpha DSLR-A900, a 24.6-megapixel digital single lens reflex camera for a cool three grand (body only). It arrives in stores come November.

You may think $3K for a digicam is steep but put it into perspective—the full-frame 21.1-megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III costs $7,999. What a deal! Yes, we know there are 50-megapixel sensors out there (Hasselblad has them) but that baby is a tidy $50,000 and is for studio pros only.

At half the price of the Mark III, the new Sony is clearly aimed at enthusiasts looking for the best image quality they can get without hitting the home equity line. Sony gave a select group of press people the opportunity to play with pre-production versions of this camera. Since they’re not prime-time units, we were told by Sony in no uncertain terms these images were for personal use only—not photos to closely scrutinize and pronounce definitive judgments. That said, it was fun taking this camera for a spin and what follows are our first impressions; an “official” DT review will hit as soon as production versions are available.

Sony alpha A900
Image Courtesy of Sony

Features and Design

The DSLR-A900 looks beefy but it’s not nearly as impressive as the Mark III, but these cameras are targeted to two very different audiences (true pros and enthusiasts). The A900 has the familiar look of the alpha series. In other words, it looks like a high-priced black D-SLR with a textured finish and an orange alpha icon on the front. Surprisingly there’s not even a hint of 24.6 megapixel imager safely tucked within.

The A900 measures 6.1 x 4.67 x 3.25 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 30 ounces without the battery. By comparison the 21.1MP Mark III is 6.1 x 6.3 x 3.1 and weighs 42.5 ounces without battery, a huge difference.

As with every D-SLR, the most prominent front feature is the lens opening; Sony alphas have a bayonet mount that accepts Sony and older Konica Minolta AF lenses. Also on the front is a switch to change focus mode and one very cool button—Intelligent Preview—which is also the depth of field preview key. When you frame a shot, you hit this button and you’ll see a preview of the shot on the 3-inch LCD. At this point you can make a wide variety of adjustments such as dynamic range optimization, white balance and so on. Once you get it to your liking, you then reframe the shot and click away.

On the right side is a substantial grip with shutter button on top along with a jog wheel for fine-tuning adjustments.

The top of the camera is nicely laid out with a small LCD status screen showing battery strength, shutter speed, aperture and number of images left. It uses CompactFlash and Memory Stick Pro Duo media; I popped in a 4GB Sony UDMA compliant card with a zippy 45 MB/s write speed. On the right side near the shutter are dedicated keys for exposure compensation, drive, white balance and ISO. On the top left is a basic mode dial offering the usual settings—Auto, Program AE, Aperture- and Shutter-Priority and full Manual. You can create three custom settings as well.

The rear of the camera is dominated by a 3-inch LCD screen rated 920K pixels. It’s a good screen and the menus were legible and easy to follow. Of course, there’s a four-way control with center set button. Also of note is the very bright viewfinder with 100 percent field coverage.

There is a mini HDMI port so you can check out the images on a HDTV as well as USB 2.0 out for downloading images if you don’t use a card reader.

Performance and Use

Sony took us to a farm in Westchester County, N.Y. so we could walk among the animals for cutesy pictures as well as examine the architecture of stone barns while checking out blooming flowers and vegetables. It’s not Fashion Week in Manhattan but we did get a chance to play with the camera and a variety of lenses.

Hold onto your hats—since this is a 24.6-megapixel camera it takes 6046 x 4032 pixel files. I remember not too long ago when 4000 x 3000 for 12MP digicams was a big deal. That’s puny by comparison. Since the camera has two BIONZ processors, you can take bursts of 5 frames per second up to a maximum of 12 when you’re in RAW mode, the finest quality. The Canon Mark III also does 5 fps for up to a dozen files before catching its breath. Either one is a marvel—and marvelous should be the word when you pay this kind of cash for a camera.

Sony alpha A900
Image Courtesy of Sony

Let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty specs. The A900 has an ISO range of 200-3200 with 6400 available as a custom setting. For focusing, the D-SLR has 9 points (center dual-cross type) with 10 assist points. (By comparison, the Mark III is a 45-point system with 19 cross type and 26 assist points.) Shutter speed is 30 seconds-1/8000th of a second, typical for a camera of this class.

As we stated up front, we can’t give definitive comments about the images we shot—we have to wait for final production models. However, the camera focused quickly with barely any lag and the burst mode was close to Sony’s spec. It felt comfortable to use with the controls easily within reach. I will say some of the shots looked terrific even in this pre-production phase. Using a $1,800 Zeiss 24-70mm lens certainly helped the situation. Since this camera has a full-frame sensor, the focal length of the lens you attach is exactly what you’ll see; there’s no 1.6x digital factor like the vast majority of D-SLRs. So that 24mm was 24mm—not 38.4mm. Close-ups of sunflowers and geese were amazing. I enlarged the eye of one bird on my monitor and could see my reflection—shades of CSI and finding the murderer! Colors were accurate but again this is not a definitive pronouncement so Sony people, please relax.

Conclusion

We have to hedge again but the camera looks very promising. The fact you can buy a 24.6MP D-SLR with built-in sensor shift stabilization for $2,999 (body only) this November is a breakthrough of the highest order. Will pros give up their EOS-1Ds Mark IIIs and Nikon D3s? I doubt it. But serious enthusiasts looking to give themselves a nice holiday gift will be lining up.

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