Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 Review
Minolta's entry in the 8-megapixel marketplace, the DiMAGE A2, is an upgrade of their popular DiMAGE A1. The A2 employs a new 8-Megapixel imager and improved Electronic Viewfinder, while retaining the high-quality Minolta GT 7X optical zoom lens, stylish and durable metal body, 3-D Predictive Focus, Subject Tracking, and an Anti Shake features of its predecessor. Like its competitors, the A2 offers operating modes simple enough for beginners to use, yet provides features demanded by the advanced photographer.
Do you want simplicity? Simply turn the exposure-mode dial to Auto or one of the Digital Subject Programs (Portrait, Sports, Sunset or Night Portrait); the A2 becomes a point-n-shoot that will produce pleasing results with no fuss. Care to get creative or photograph challenging situations? The A2 will offer you everything you need. Of course there are exposure modes of Program (with shift), Aperture and Shutter priority and Manual. Is the scene lighting challenging? You have a choice of Multi-segment, Center weighted or spot metering, along with exposure compensation settings of +/- 2EV including Flash. White balance can be automatically detected, selected from preset sources with seven levels of fine adjustment, or one of three custom settings you can calibrate to the exact lighting conditions. You can adjust contrast, color and saturation with the convenient Digital Effects Control, and those changes are visible on the viewfinder before the image is captured. With such versatile controls, making changes to camera settings could become difficult and tedious, but the A2 allows you to save five sets of camera settings that you can later recall, reducing the chore of camera setup and helping you get it right every time.
One of the A2'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. Minolta chose a versatile zoom range of 28-200mm for the 7x GT lens, offering a wide field of view for interiors and landscapes while providing enough telephoto magnification to bring your subjects close. It's an excellent set of optics that has been perfectly matched to the camera's imager. The lens is razor sharp from edge to edge, but exhibits a bit of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) at wide angle, a moderate degree of telephoto pin cushioning, and noticeable wide-angle barrel distortion. 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.
While powerful 7x to 8x zoom lenses add versatility to our digicams, the camera manufacturers have been unable to use optical viewfinders with them; it's simply too difficult to couple the viewfinder with the lens over its wide zoom range to provide an accurate viewfinder image. Cameras in this class all use an eye-level Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) in place of a real optical viewfinder with varying degrees of success. With the A2, Minolta has raised the bar for EVF viewfinders; its the closest to the quality of an optical viewfinder of any that I've used. In High Precision mode, the EVF is resolute enough to be used for manual focusing, while its Smooth mode increases the refresh rate to 60fps, eliminating the jumpiness of other EVF's and allowing you to easily pan and follow moving subjects.
As with its predecessor, the A2 is equipped with an "Eye Start" Auto-EVF feature that automatically switches the viewfinder image between the LCD monitor and EVF when the camera is placed at or removed from you eye. When shooting at eye-level, I prefer to use the EVF for composing, and the LCD for reviewing images and navigating the menu system; with auto-EVF enabled, you simply place the camera at or away from your eye, and the A2 switches viewfinders automatically. As with the A1, both viewfinders have a versatile range of movement. The EVF can be tilted through a 90-degree range, allowing it to be used at eye or chest-level, while the LCD can be tilted down 20-degrees through up 90-degrees allowing the camera to be used overhead or at waist-level. They are equally functional for navigating the menu's, composing, and reviewing your shots. When shooting in low ambient light they "gain-up", or intensify, the live image as an aid to composition.
The A2's shooting performance is good and is what you'd expect from a high-end prosumer digicam. From power-on till the first image was captured measured about 3 seconds, as did waking the A2 from its Power Save mode. 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. The A2's viewfinders contributed about 1/10 second to the measured delay; viewfinder delay can be almost eliminated by using the EVF in Smooth mode, improving the A2's responsiveness for sports and action photography. Shot-to-shot delay averaged about 1 second in single AF, 1.5 to 2.5 seconds with flash, but performance was erratic in continuous AF mode, frequently requiring me to re-depress the shutter button to capture the next image.
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 8/10 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. In both of these modes there was a delay of about 8 seconds before additional images could be captured, and the subsequent capture rate slowed to about one shot every four seconds. In Ultra High Speed continuous mode, the A2 captured 640x480 images at a rate of seven per second; the viewfinder displayed the last image between shots and, because of the 7fps capture rate, it was possible to follow a moving subject. While the A2's high-resolution EVF is quite an improvement when used in single-shot mode, you'll still find it much less effective than an optical viewfinder in any of the continuous shooting modes. Continuous autofocus could be used in Continuous drive mode, but not High Speed or Ultra High Speed modes.
Things slow down considerably when shooting in RAW mode. In single-shot drive mode, I was able to capture 3 shots at the same 1 second intervals, but subsequent shots could be captured at 10 second intervals. In Continuous and High Speed Continuous drive modes, 3 shots were captured in 1.1 and 8/10 second respectively, but subsequent shots could be taken at 11 second intervals. In RAW+JPEG mode, consecutive shots could be captured at 14 second intervals, and it was not possible to use any of the Continuous drive modes. These results were obtained using a 1GB Sandisk Ultra CF memory card with the camera set to 3264x2448 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 moderate 28mm (35mm equivalent) wide-angle end of the zoom range provides enough field of view to compose shots in cramped quarters. Its builtin, manually-raised flash seems to be more powerful than Minolta's specifications suggest (12.5 feet range). It covers the field of view with the lens at 28mm well, and produces well-exposed portraits. However, both the builtin flash and external Minolta speedlights produce noticeably warm (yellowish) skin tones when using the default Auto White Balance. This can be corrected by selecting the Flash White Balance setting but will surely annoy those using the camera's auto settings. See the sample photos page for an example of the same shot captured with Auto and Flash WB. It seems a simple fix would be to automatically select Flash WB whenever the flash is being used, we hope a future firmware upgrade will solve this problem. 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 builtin flash provides, you can attach the Minolta Maxxum Program Flash 5600 HS, Program Flash 3600 HS or 2500D to the camera's hot shoe. The A2 controls the motorized zoom head of the flashes with that feature but it does not make use of the AF-assist illuminator. The A2 can also be used with studio strobes via its PC flash sync port.
The A2's macro mode will allow you to take close-ups of objects as near as 5.5 inches, but Minolta advises that the builtin flash should not be used; in our testing, however, we obtained good macro exposures using the internal flash with the lens at both its telephoto and wide angle settings, but don't forget to remove the lens hood! Minolta's accessory Macro Flash Controller can be coupled with the Macro Ring Flash 1200 or the Macro Twin Flash 2400 lighting sets to better illuminate your macro photography subjects.
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 (normal, overexposure, and underexposure) in increments of +/- .3EV 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 high-resolution EVF was a joy to use while panning with a moving subject.
We continue to be impressed with the effectiveness of Minolta's Anti-Shake feature first seen on the A1 last year. 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. Using the A2's Anti-Shake function, we obtained a high percentage of sharp images at shutter speeds as low as 1/30 second at 200mm and 1/10 second at 28mm, although in Program AE the yellow Anti-Shake warning appeared at shutter speeds below 1/30 second at wide angle and 1/60 second at telephoto. Using the A2'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 A2 - 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 A2 is a very cost-effective solution.
We were less impressed with the effectiveness of the A2'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. Like the A1, its ability to keep up with the playful movement of a very fast Shetland Sheepdog was unreliable.
The A2 has a versatile movie mode, with resolutions of 544x408 and 320x240, and frame rates of 15 and 30fps. In addition to standard movies, it can record a Night Movie in black and white under conditions of low ambient light. The A2's movie mode goes beyond automatic, allowing you to set exposure , contrast and color-saturation compensation, as well as allowing the use of manual focus and macro focusing. Both zoom and continuous autofocus can be used during recording. While it is capable of producing high-quality moving images, we noticed some lighting-dependent chromatic aberrations and an annoying tendency to focus-hunt, bringing the image in and out of focus throughout the recording. Although Minolta claims that recording time in 544x408 30fps mode is up to six minutes, we saw a lot of different maximum times. With a lot of background and foreground scene changes, (real-life movies) the recording often max'd out at two minutes or less. Shooting a static scene sometimes yielded a maximum of more than six minutes. Your mileage may vary...
Ergonomically, the A2 was comfortable to use. Its controls have a professional feel, and are well organized with the exception of the AE Lock button, which falls under your right thumb and is too easy to accidentally activate. Like the A1, the A2 uses the proprietary NP-400 Lithium Ion battery that Minolta claims will provide power for 280 shots. I captured an average of 240 images per charge, including heavy use of the LCD to explore the menu system and review the test shots. As always, I recommend that you carry a fully-charged spare battery to avoid the inevitable disappointment when the low-battery warning presents itself. If you need extended battery life or you do a lot of vertically-oriented shooting, the optional BP-400 battery grip should be on your "to buy" list. It lets you have two NP-400 batteries (or six AA type NiMH) in the camera at the same time and also provides a portrait grip and vertical shutter release. The BP-400 also lowers the center of gravity which is handy when using an external flash on top of the camera.
The Dimage A2 is a pleasure to use. With a street price of under $900, it provides
a prosumer, fixed-lens 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.
In our opinion, the A2 is superior to this year's 8-megapixel entries from Sony, Nikon
and Canon in terms of optical quality with noticeably less chromatic aberration problems.
If you're looking for a feature-rich, high-resolution, digicam with an exceptional
electronic viewfinder and image stabilization, the Minolta DiMage A2 is worthy
of your consideration.
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DiMAGE A2 Firmware Update
Konica Minolta Europe has posted the DiMAGE A2 Firmware Update V112. Please read carefully the DiMAGE A2 firmware update PDF for detailed instructions on how to update the camera firmware!
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