Sony Alpha 100 £478.6
14th Aug 2006 | 23:00
The perfect digital SLR? On paper it's hard to argue
So, what would the perfect digital SLR give us? How about a substantial jump from the 6-megapixel resolution standard for low-cost SLRs, right up to 10 million pixels, skipping the modest increases to 8 megapixels of the Canon EOS 350D and Olympus E300/E500?
Now, what about an anti-shake system built into the camera body so that you don't have to pay through the nose for expensive stabilised lenses? And built-in dust removal is surely essential in a modern SLR - to date only Olympus has tackled this particular issue with its Supersonic Wave Filter.
We don't want yet another new lens mount, so what would you say to an SLR compatible with some 6 million lenses already being used worldwide? And we want all this for not much more than the price of an existing DSLR - let's say £700 RRP and £600 in the shops. And that, dear readers, is exactly what the Sony A100 gives you.
It's the first result of Sony's takeover of Konica Minolta, and it's obvious many of this camera's features come from the Dynax product line. The anti-shake system is straight out of the Dynax 7D and Dynax 5D, though Sony's adapted it to give the sensor a little shiver every time you shut down to shake off any dust, too.
And this compatibility with over 6 million lenses worldwide (Sony's figure) is equally easy to explain - the A 00 uses the Konica Minolta lens mount.
For anyone who used the Dynax 5D, the similarities go a lot further. That 'Sony G' kit lens is a dead ringer for the 8-70mm Konica Minolta lens on the 5D. The zoom grip's been changed and some of the lettering is in a different font, but the likeness is inescapable.
In fact, the whole camera is exactly what you'd get if you gave a 5D a cosmetic makeover. When you start it up it still sounds like someone shunting a goods train, and the shutter still has the 5D's characteristic metallic 'clank'. Not that we want to be rude about the Dynax 5D. It was really rather a good camera that simply wasn't out there long enough to make a proper impression on the market.
Using the Dynax 5D was a mixed bag, with a superb white-on-blue status display on the LCD during shooting, but poorly finished buttons and a control system that was spread about too much between the various menus, dials and buttons.
Sony's pulled the A100 together extremely well. The display is now white-on-grey (oh well), but the overall finish is better and the camera's major functions have been pulled together into a single dial on the top plate.
You rotate to metering pattern, flash mode, focus mode, ISO, white balance, dynamic range or DEC (image adjustment) settings, then hold down the central 'Fn' button. This brings up the mode on the LCD and you simply turn the control dial to change the settings.
This is very good. Admittedly, many users won't change these options from one day to the next, but those who are more ambitious will be delighted. This contrasts with other low-cost SLRs that offer similar options but bury them in menus so convoluted they have you screaming with frustration. The clarity and accessibility of the A100's creative functions really set it apart from the crowd.
There is one change worth moaning about. The Dynax 5D had little rubber feet on the base that kept it securely anchored on skiddy tabletops. The A100 dispenses with these and, as a result, does slide around on polished surfaces.
And there are other problems. The start-up time is around a second, which is good compared to an old stager like the original Canon EOS 300D (around 3-4 seconds) but it's not the same as the instantaneous and silent Nikon D50, say. And you never quite get used to the heavy clanking that accompanies it.
The shutter release is loud and harsh, too. And as if all that wasn't enough, focusing is neither quiet nor fast and, when you release the shutter button after half-pressing it, there's an odd mechanical 'flip' sound from inside the camera. This isn't an unusual problem - the Dynax 5D was the same - but is nevertheless rather unsettling.
So does the 67% increase in pixels over a 6-megapixel SLR deliver 67% more definition? Not in the A100. When looking at images onscreen at 00% magnification to check for 'per pixel' sharpness, the A 00 doesn't give the 'per pixel' sharpness of, say, the 6-megapixel Nikon D50.
Of course, there are more pixels, but the upshot is a less-than- certain relationship between pixels and detail.
It could be that the sensor has a fairly heavy low pass filter (sensors have these to subdue interference effects). It could be that the image processing is conservative and little sharpening is applied in the camera. It could be that the kit lens isn't terribly good.
Evidence for the latter comes in the form of visible chromatic aberration around high-contrast or silhouetted outlines towards the edges of the frame. It's a bit worse here than we've come to expect from digital SLRs, but you'll only notice if you study enlargements closely.
The colour and tonal reproduction is good, as is the auto white balance, but it wasn't clear what the Dynamic Range Optimiser achieved, if anything, in our real-world tests. And the metering system, like those on most amateur-orientated cameras, is heavily biased in favour of shadowed parts of the scene, even if this means overexposing (or 'blowing') the highlights.
The A100 feels too much like Konica Minolta's Dynax 5D to come across as a genuinely new camera. On the one hand it has integral image stabilisation and an excellent control layout, on the other it has only middling image quality (compared to what you might have been expecting) and is mechanically noisy.
Forthcoming new Carl Zeiss lenses may reveal the full potential of the sensor, but they'll also blow apart the A100's current - very attractive and very competitive - pricing. And, in the absence of any obviously superior image quality, it's the price that's likely to determine the A100's success. Rod Lawton
More pixels should mean sharper images, though lens quality and other characteristics will have an effect too. The sensor is the same physical size as those in other digital SLRs, which means the individual pixels are smaller. This may lead to higher noise levels. At the time of its launch the A100 had the highest resolution of any digital SLR under £1,000. With the announcement of the Nikon D80, that's no longer true, though the Sony is still the cheapest. Interestingly, Sony has opted for a conventional CCD sensor despite the fact it's already developed a CMOS sensor for its CyberShot R1 camera. There's talk that the sensor used in the A100 is the same as in the Nikon D80, but that may be a simplification. Sony do make both sensors, but Nikon's line is that it designs its own sensors while Sony simply makes them.
Start-up: Start-up time is about one second, and is rather noisy, as is the shutter release.
Colour fringing: The 18-70mm lens supplied offers a good zooming range but it's an indifferent performer, generating some noticeable fringing towards the edges of the frame.
Definition: Whether you blame the kit lens or the sensor, the detail rendition is good rather than great. It may be an advance on lesser digital SLRs, but it's no breakthrough.
Exposure: The Sony's multi-pattern metering always favours darker areas of the scene which can mean some highlight clipping. This poses no problems in this shot, though.
Controls: A single dial on the top plate is used to set to metering pattern, fl ash mode, focus mode, white balance, dynamic range and DEC - brilliant!
Function dial: This function dial offers fast and efficient access to seven crucial creative controls. You turn the dial to the setting you want to adjust, press the central 'Fn' button and turn the camera's control dial.
Eye-start sensor: When you put your eye to the viewfinder, focusing and exposure measurement start automatically, though they can also activate while you're carrying the camera at your side - you can turn this feature off.
2.5-inch LCD: The LCD is not only large; it's sharp too, with 230,000 pixels. Image playback is super-sharp, and the menu and status information is unusually clear. The backlight switches off when you put the camera to your eye.
Super SteadyShot: The CCD-shift system increases your chances of getting sharp shots with marginal (1/30 sec or slower) shutter speeds in poor light, or with long telephoto lenses.
Skin tones: The auto white balance has done a great job here, producing good skin tones despite the fact these musicians were in shadow.
Noise/ISO: High ISOs are always a worry with higher-resolution sensors. This ISO 1600 shot has a little more noise than we'd expect from a 6-megapixel SLR, but the overall quality is very good.
White balance: The yellow tinge in this shot is due to the artificial lighting. The A100 has gone some way towards correcting the deep orange colour of the lamps, though, and is better in artificial light than many of its rivals.
Anti-shake: Handheld at a shutter speed of 1/3 sec? Were we mad? The Super SteadyShot system offers no guarantees, but here it's enabled us to get a crisp shot in near-impossible conditions.
Outdoor shots: You can expect bright, saturated colours outdoors, though the A100's tendency to expose for the shadows can sometimes lead to unexpectedly washed-out shots like this one.
Indoor shots: The combination of the anti-shake system and good auto white balance make the A100 especially good indoors using available light, artificial or otherwise.