Minolta DiMAGE A1 Review
By Movable Type Admin
Minolta has significantly upgraded the popular DiMAGE 7Hi with the introduction of their new DiMAGE A1. It employs the same 5-Megapixel imager, Minolta GT 7X optical zoom, flexible Hyper Viewfinder and the same lightweight, stylish and durable metal body. But Minolta has raised the standard for serious pro-sumer pseudo-SLR type cameras with these changes: shutter speeds as fast as 1/16,000 second, 3-D Predictive Focus, Subject Tracking, and an Anti Shake feature claimed to produce high-quality hand-held images at slow shutter speeds.
Distinguishing itself from high-end consumer digicams as a prosumer model, the DiMAGE A1 provides a high degree of adjustability to meet the needs of the advanced photographer. The A1's exposure modes include several scene modes as well as program, shutter or aperture priority and manual exposure mode. Program mode also has a program-shift function which allows you to modify the shutter speed/aperture combination chosen by the camera while still maintaining perfect exposure. Do you need flexibility in metering? There's a choice of multi-segment, center-weighted or spot metering. Dealing with unusual lighting? There's a choice of pre-defined white balance settings plus custom calibration. In addition, image sharpness, color space, contrast, ISO, and flash settings all fall under the control of the A1's logically-organized menu system. But given the number of variables available in the A1, flexibility could lead to complexity and time-consuming button-pushing when preparing for a shoot; the A1 offers help in the form of a camera settings memory into which you can store frequently-used settings and recall them at the press of a button.
One of the A1's most impressive features is its zoom lens. Anybody that has used a digicam with a long focal length zoom knows that these lenses really add to the overall "fun factor" of using a camera. A zoom lens with the versatility of the 28-200mm 7x Minolta GT zoom would be a very expensive purchase on a 35mm camera, it would also be quite large and heavy. Thanks to the CCD imager instead of a physically larger piece of 35mm film, the 7x lens does not need to large or heavy. It is an excellent set of optics that has been perfectly matched to the camera's imager. It's razor sharp from edge to edge and exhibits no chromatic aberration (purple fringing) problems, although it does exhibit a moderate degree of telephoto pin cushioning and wide-angle barrel distortion. And it's a joy to move the lens continuously through its range using the mechanical zoom ring rather than the buttons that actuate the motor-driven stepped zooms included with most consumer digicams.
The A1's shooting performance is quite good and what you'd expect from a high-end prosumer digicam. From power-on till the first image was captured measured about 3 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 2/10 second when pre-focused, and 5/10 second including autofocus time; these results were obtained using a 512MB CF memory card with the camera set to 2560x1920 image size and Extra fine quality, and include viewfinder delay, photographer response time, and image capture - they are numbers you can reproduce in the real world. The A1's viewfinder contributed about 1/10 second to the measured delay; because the A1 has no optical viewfinder, you'll have to adjust your shutter-release timing for the slight delay while the A1 presents the live image on either the LCD or EVF. Shot-to-shot delay averaged about 2.1 seconds in single AF, and 1.8 seconds in continuous AF mode. Continuous drive mode captured 3 JPG images in 1.1 seconds while displaying the live image in the viewfinder only briefly between shots. High Speed Continuous mode required only 9/10 second to capture 3 images, but the viewfinder is frozen during this image capture sequence and you won't be able to follow a moving subject. There is a relationship between shooting performance and viewfinder effectiveness in the A1; while its viewfinders are both bright and informative, and the EVF allows an SLR-like shooting technique, there is a penalty to be paid in terms of viewfinder delay and usefulness while shooting in any of the continuous modes.
The moderate 28mm (35mm equivalent) wide-angle end of the zoom range provides enough field of view to compose you shots in cramped quarters. Its built-in pop-up flash seems to be more powerful than Minolta's specs suggest (12.5 feet range), covers the field of view with the lens at 28mm well, and produces well-exposed portraits with accurate skin tones. The autofocus system worked well in conditions of low ambient light despite the absence of a focus-assist lamp. If you need more range or versatility than the built-in flash provides, you can attach the Minolta Maxxum Program Flash 5600 HS, Program Flash 3600 HS or 2500D to the built-in hot shoe. The A1's macro mode will allow you to take close-ups of objects as near as 10 inches, but Minolta advises that the built-in flash should not be used; Minolta's accessory Macro Flash Controller can be coupled with the Macro Ring Flash 1200 or the Macro Twin Flash 2400 lighting sets to illuminate your macro photography subjects. The A1 also supports the attachment of studio lighting equipment via standard PC cord.
Our outdoor test shots were sharp, well-exposed and richly saturated, although there was a noticeable amount of noise present in the darker areas of exposures even at ISO 100. We made frequent use of exposure bracketing, which uses continuous drive mode to take 3 shots of normal, overexposure, and underexposure in increments of +/- .35EV or .5EV. You'll find this feature useful when dealing with unusual lighting conditions. We found the LCD viewfinder quite usable outdoors, even in bright sunlight, and the EVF will allow SLR-like panning while shooting a moving subject. The A1 will automatically switch the live image display between the LCD and EVF when the Display Mode Switch is set to Auto, allowing you to compose and shoot using the EVF, and review your shots on the LCD by simply moving the camera away from your eye.
We were impressed with the effectiveness of the A1's Anti-Shake feature. One of the most frequent disappointments for users of high-end digicams has been their inability to capture good hand-held images at concerts. The combination of telephoto focal length and dim lighting require slow shutter speeds, resulting in images ruined by camera shake. Minolta claim that the A1's Anti-Shake function will allow you to obtain a high percentage of sharp images at shutter speeds as low as 1/25 second, and our results back up their claim. Using the A1's Anti Shake feature, you'll be more concerned with subject movement than camera shake. While the SLR world has image-stabilized lenses to overcome camera shake issues, the cost of a single lens in many cases exceeds the cost of the A1 - lens included! If you are in need of a high-quality digicam capable of being hand-held in conditions of low ambient light, the Minolta DiMAGE A1 is a very cost-effective solution.
We were less impressed with the effectiveness of the A1's predictive tracking autofocus system. We were hoping that it would produce sharp results when pre-focusing was not possible because of erratic subject movement; it did so, but only for slow moving subjects. Its ability to keep up with the playful movement of a very fast Sheltie was unreliable.
Unlike its predecessors, the 7i and 7Hi, The A1 uses a proprietary Lithium Ion battery that Minolta claims will provide power for 330 shots. While we never allowed the battery to completely drain during our testing, we routinely captured 250 images with heavy use of the LCD to explore the menu system and review our shots. As always, we recommend that you carry a fully-charged spare battery to avoid the inevitable disappointment when the low-battery warning presents itself.
The Dimage A1 is a pleasure to shoot. With a street price of under $1000, it provides
a cost-effective alternative to the new generation of entry-level
digital SLR's; it offers a richer feature set, but at the expense of
lens interchangeability, shooting performance, and viewfinder clarity.
As we said in the 7Hi's conclusion... "If you want a high
resolution digicam with all the features you'll ever need, a big zoom and excellent image
quality," the DiMAGE A1 should be at the top of your list.
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