Sony DSLR-A100 Review
The A100's ergonomics were excellent. The grip was comfortably sized, and the camera controls were well-placed, not getting in the way during shooting yet easily accessible when needed. The A100 marks the return of the Function dial, providing access to the camera's metering, flash, focus, ISO, White Balance, Dynamic Range and color/DEC controls - simply turn the dial and hit the Fn button at its center for direct access to the control of your choice without wading through a menu system to find it. The look and feel of the A100 is more camera-like than most consumer dSLRs, a plus for those migrating from film SLRs.
Taking the place of the top-mounted data LCD present on many dSLRs is the large 2.5- inch LCD monitor which serves as a recording mode display as well as a playback and menu navigation monitor. The recording mode display is very informative, with indicators for essentially all of the available camera settings. It was also enjoyable to use, turning on and off automatically via the eyepiece sensors, and rotating automatically via the camera's orientation sensor; it is not necessary to remove the camera from eye level to view or change settings. The menu text was easy to read thanks to the large LCD, and navigation was easily accomplished using the 4-way controller and front control dial. The display is quite bright; in dim ambient light I sometimes turned it off to eliminate its distracting glare as I raised the camera to eye level. Although the same size physically, the A100's LCD is higher resolution than the 5D's (230,000 pixels vs 115,000).
The bright, resolute display was very effective for image playback, having the ability to magnify an image up to 12x for Large JPEG and RAW captures (9x for medium and 6x for small JPEGS) to critically examine image details. The A100's index display mode is configurable to display thumbnails of 4, 9 or 16 images, or 6 images with folder navigation. Add to that the ability to display a histogram with under/over exposed area highlighting and detailed shooting information and you have a very versatile playback system, missing only an RGB histogram.
The A100's viewfinder is both bright and informative. All the necessary camera status information is presented on the bottom line, and focus areas are illuminated briefly when autofocus is locked. Complementing the A100's Super Steady Shot feature, the right side of the viewfinder displays a scale that informs you of the amount of shake detected; reducing camera movement will improve its results. The viewfinder's deep rubber eye cup and dioptric adjustment easily accommodate eyeglass wearers, providing a clear and full view of the focusing screen and display areas. The A100's matte focusing screen is effective for manual focusing, and the camera's AF system operates during manual focus, lighting the focus confirmation indicator when it is in agreement.
The A100's shooting performance is robust and competitive in the amateur dSLR market. From power-on till the first image was captured measured a mere 9/10 second; waking the 5D up from its power-saving sleep mode took about the same amount of time. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, averaged about 1/10 second when pre-focused, and between 3/10 and 4/10 second including auto focus time, depending on the degree of focus change required. Shot-to-shot delay averaged a fast 6/10 second in both single and continuous AF; using the internal flash, the shot-to-shot interval grew to between 1.3 and 3 seconds depending on subject distance.
The A100's performance in Continuous advance mode captured images at 3 frames per second (fps) without any full-buffer slowdown, a continuous shooting depth that's tops among amateur dSLRs at the time of this review. In RAW mode, the capture rate stayed at 3fps, but only 10 images could be captured before the buffer filled, and the interval to capture subsequent images slowed to 7/10 second; it took less than 7 seconds to flush a buffer full of RAW images. These results were obtained using a Lexar Professional 80X 2GB CF memory card, 18-70mm Sony AF DT lens, flash off, AWB, 3872 x 2592 JPEG/Fine unless otherwise noted. Continuous shooting depth and buffer clearing times suffered when using a Sony Memory Stick Duo with the supplied Memory Stick Duo Adaptor for CF slot; RAW depth to dropped to 8 shots, and buffer clearing time extended to about 40 seconds.
The A100's body-integral Anti-shake system is a carry-over from Konica Minolta's 7D, a first among dSLRs. Sony claims that the A100's Super Steady Shot will help you capture blur-free images at shutter speeds two to three stops slower than the 1/focal-length rule of thumb, and my experience agreed. Shooting with the 75-300mm AF zoom at 200mm, a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 300mm, I was able to capture consistently blur-free images at 1/100 second, a high percentage of keepers at 1/60 second, and about 50% blur-free at 1/30 second, a 3-stop improvement.
While the A100's Super Steady Shot feature reduces camera shake-caused blur, it won't help with blur caused by subject motion; for that you'll need to resort to panning if the subject is moving at a consistent rate. Although the A100 has no specific setting for panning mode, I did combine panning with Super Steady Shot to capture a high percentage of keepers at a recent historic auto race - it works very well!
The A100's autofocus system is flexible and accurate. It provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Direct Manual, Single AF, Continuous AF and Automatic AF, which allows the camera to switch between single AF and Continuous AF depending on subject movement. Continuous AF was quite responsive, being able to keep up with race cars on-track. A Custom function is provided to give priority to AF, which prevents shutter release until the camera focuses, or Shutter Release, which releases the shutter even if focus can not be confirmed. The autofocus system can be set to Wide Focus Area, allowing the camera to select the optimum focus point from the 9 available, Spot AF Area using the center AF point, or Focus area selection, allowing the photographer to choose the focus point using the 4-way controller.
Low-light AF performance is very good even without the use of focus assist lamps, but the A100 will fire a few short bursts from its internal flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness. As good as the AF system is, there are always conditions that favor the use of Manual focus. The AF/MF switch, located on the left side of the body adjacent to the lens, switches the camera between manual and autofocus, allowing you to keep your eye at the viewfinder while switching focus modes. While in MF mode, the A100's AF system monitors your focusing effort; it turns on the Focus Locked indicator in the viewfinder when it is in agreement, but does not illuminate the in-focus AF point.
The A100's exposure system is capable and flexible. In ordinary shooting conditions, its automatic settings produce well-exposed, nicely saturated shots with accurate color reproduction. But when conditions are demanding, the it provides every exposure setting you could want. Dealing with unusual light sources? The 5D's White Balance system not only has all the standard presets, but each preset has a fine-tuning range of adjustment in 7 steps. Custom white balance can be set from a reference shot. You can even set white balance using the color temperature of the light source.
Both Exposure bracketing and Flash exposure bracketing are offered, with steps limited to ± .3 or .7 EV for three frames; bracketing drive mode can be set for single or continuous advance. Exposure compensation can be set ± 2EV in .3 EV steps. Contrast, saturation and sharpness can be adjusted in a range of 5 steps, -2 to +2, via the Color/Digital Effects menu. Color modes of Standard and Vivid (increased contrast and actuance) are supplemented with selections that optimize the exposure for Portraits, Landscapes, Sunsets, Night Views and Night Portraits, all using the sRGB color space. There's also a selection for Adobe RGB.
A new feature on the A100 is the D-Range Optimizer, claimed by Sony to recover details in dark or bright areas of the picture. It has 2 operating modes, Normal, which adjusts the brightness and contrast of the entire image, and Advanced, which performs the adjustments by area. The D-Range feature did produce pleasing images in our tests, and I think its use is fine for snapshots. But if you intend to post-process your images, I recommend that you forego the use of the A100's in-camera processing and rely on your image editor exclusively.
The A100 produced good exposures using its internal flash; it provided sufficient coverage for a 18mm wide angle (27mm in 35mm equivalence) field of view, and its AF-assist and Red Eye reduction functions were both very effective within its limited range. When using red eye reduction mode, shutter lag extends to about 9/10 second for the pre-flash.
The A100's image quality is excellent. Standard settings produced richly saturated images with good contrast and sharpness. Image noise is low at speeds up to ISO 800, and noticeable but usable at ISO 1600. Overall, the A100's high-ISO noise characteristics are very good for an amateur dSLR, and use of its Anti-shake feature allows lower sensitivity settings than other camera's in its class.
The Konica Minolta 18-70mm AF DT kit lens complements the A100 nicely. You won't mistake this inexpensive piece of glass for a professional lens, but it produces good sharpness throughout its zoom and aperture ranges and competes favorably with the kit lenses of other amateur dSLRs. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high contrast areas) was not evident in our test shots. The lens exhibits a bit of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but is essentially distortion free at moderate to telephoto focal lengths. The Sony 75-300mm lens complements the A100 well, providing a versatile 35mm-equivalent zoom range of 112-450mm in a lightweight package.
The A100's self-cleaning image sensor eliminates one of the most difficult issues that dSLR users face - removing image-ruining dust from the sensor. With other dSLRs (Olympus E-series and the Canon XTi being notable exceptions), the risk of dust on the sensor occurs at every lens change; it's not a matter of if, but when your images will have noticeable dark spots - especially noticeable at small apertures. The A100's self-cleaning process is invoked each time you power the camera off, causing an ultrasonic vibration to shake dust loose from the image sensor. I did not purposefully deposit any dust on the sensor during our testing, but did change lenses frequently in dusty conditions and found no evidence of dust in our samples. This feature is especially useful for amateur photographers who would find the blower or alcohol swab method of dust removal daunting.
The A100's NP-FM55H battery is quite powerful, lasting for more than 400 images with Super Steady Shot on before it produced a low battery warning. As always, keeping a second battery fully charged is highly recommended.
The amateur dSLR market is very competitive, and it would be safe to say that Sony faces stiff competition. But with Sony's aggressive A100 pricing (street of under-$700 body only, under $900 with both 18-70mm and 75-300mm kit lenses at the time of this review), it's Canon and Nikon who will be feeling the heat. Pricing aside, the A100's 10.2-megapixels of resolution, robust shooting performance, excellent image quality and unique combination of Super Steady Shot image stabilization and anti-dust technology make it a very worthy competitor. The A100 is clearly the right choice for photographers upgrading from Minolta film cameras or dSLRs, and makes a compelling case for itself to first time SLR users who have no inventory of interchangable lenses that need a compatible body.
For many, Sony's Super Steady Shot feature will be a tie-breaker. Amateur dSLRs are generally outfitted with inexpensive amateur lenses having relatively small apertures and no image stabilization; the A100's Super Steady Shot feature allows you to enjoy low light hand-held shooting with every lens in your kit, while the competition requires the purchase of relatively expensive image stabilized lenses for equivalent low light shooting.
With the introduction of the A100, Sony has clearly established itself as a quality producer amateur dSLRs and erased any doubts about its commitment to the dSLR marketplace. Please have a look at our Sample Photos to see what this jewel is capable of producing.
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