Sony Alpha A700 Review
The Sony Alpha A700 is the gate-opener for a new batch of DSLR cameras with resolutions of 12 megapixels and functionality aimed at semi-professional photographers. At the same time, this digital SLR is more than a simple resolution upgrade to its predecessor, the first Alpha DSLR to bear the Sony name. Still based on a legacy of technology acquired from Konica-Minolta, the Sony Alpha A700 reminds us of its origins even more than the A100.
Aside from the higher-resolution and higher-sensitivity sensor, the Sony A700's major features are comparable to other semi-professional DSLRs such as the Pentax K10D and the Canon EOS 40D. Although it lacks the K10D's splash-proof weather-seals, it can shoot an unlimited number of JPEG images at 5 FPS, while the K10D shoots at 3 FPS. Although the 40D's 6.5 FPS continuous drive is a bit faster, it is limited to 75 frames. Plus, like the K10D, the Alpha A700 has built-in image-stabilization which advantages all lenses at no additional cost.
As expected from a modern DSLR, the Sony Alpha A700 is a full-featured digital camera with full-manual controls, a wide range of shutter-speeds including bulb mode, exposure-compensation, custom white-balance, interchangeable lenses, continuous drive, an optical viewfinder and built-in dust reduction. Beyond the features of most modern DSLR cameras, the Sony Alpha A700 features ISO sensitivities up to 6400 at full-resolution, a high-precision 3" LCD with 920,000 pixels and a dynamic-range optimizer first-seen in the A100.
One of the most important features of this DSLR is its built-in stabilization. Built-in stabilization can bring both unequaled flexibility and cost savings. There are many types of lenses which do not have any stabilized counterparts, in particular, prime lenses and most bright zooms. This means that photography is possible in darker conditions than without built-in stabilization. The cost saving aspect can also be very important as it saves up to $500 USD per lens. It can also make a standard zoom usable when a bright and more expensive zoom would normally be required. Note that this feature can also be found in some Pentax and Olympus DSLR cameras.
Sensitivities up to ISO 6400 are also an important addition to this digital camera. Compared to most models with 10 megapixels sensors, the Sony A700 has 2 stops more sensitivity. For more sensitivity, one must use a full-frame DSLR such as the Nikon D3 which reaches an unprecedented ISO 25600.
The continuous drive is quite unique. Although, doing 5 FPS is not such an achievement since the Canon EOS 20D has been doing it for over 3 years, outputting an unlimited number of 12 megapixels JPEG images at 5 FPS is.
Although this Sony DSLR is billed as being weather-sealed, it is not splash-proof. Just like the 40D, It is more resistant to dust and moisture than the typical DSLR. The A700 also features a built-in dust-reduction system which is now standard on modern DSLRs. Finally, a 16-105mm F3.5-5.6 lens was introduced along the Sony Alpha A700. Without implying that this is a high-quality lens, this lens features a unique and highly versatile zoom range.
The Sony Alpha A700 has a Dynamic-Range-Optimizer (DRO), an eye-start sensor, a grip sensor and an auto-rotating status display. An in-depth discussion of these unique features is included further in this review. As for its more-standard feature set, here it is:
- 12 Megapixels image sensor, 1.5X crop-factor.
- Minolta A-mount, supports nearly all AF Konica-Minolta lenses.
- ISO 100 to 6400 plus customizable Auto ISO.
- 1/8000s to 30s shutter-speeds, plus bulb mode exposures up to 4h30.
- Metering modes: multi-segment, center-weighed and spot.
- Exposure compensation: -3..+3.
- Flash compensation: -3..+3.
- Exposure bracketing, 3 or 5 images, 0.3, 0.5 or 0.7 EV inc.
- DRO and WB bracketing from single-shot, 2 levels.
- Automatic white-balance.
- Preset, kelvin and custom white-balance, all fine-tunable along green-to-magenta scale.
- 11-point auto-focus system.
- Focus-point selection: automatic, manual or center.
- Focus modes: single-shot, direct-manual (DMF) or auto-switching, continuous, and manual.
- Full manual controls.
- Unlimited 5 FPS continuous drive.
- 10-second and 2-second self-timers with automatic mirror-lockup.
- Dedicated Auto-Exposure-Lock (AEL) and optional Auto-Focus-Lock (AFL).
- Customizable saturation, sharpness and contrast, in 7 steps each.
- 3" LCD 920K Pixels with automatic rotation of status screen.
- Eye-start sensor automatically controls LCD and optionally starts auto focus.
- Grip sensor optionally starts auto focus along with eye-start sensor.
- 0.9X Magnification viewfinder, 95% coverage.
- Image review with magnification and histogram.
- Depth-of-field preview.
- JPEG, RAW and compressed-RAW modes.
- Built-in flash.
- Info-lithium battery with detailed rundown.
- Compact Flash and Memory Stick Duo memory.
- Infra-red remote, supplied in North America.
- HDMI 1080i or 720 output.
Suitability - What is it good for?
Since DSLR cameras represent the high-end of digital cameras, they are generally suitable for most types of photography. The versatility of interchangeable lenses gives SLR cameras their greatest potential. The Sony Alpha A700 is no exception, it is suitable for every type of photographic subject.
The Sony Alpha A700 is part of flexible system which includes lenses and flashes by Sony and Konica-Minolta. Sony presently offers over twenty lenses, including several rather unique ones. Particularly, the A700 is sold as a kit with a 16-105 F3.5-5.6 lens equivalent to 24-158 in 35mm terms. This lens goes from substantial wide angle to a moderate telephoto. They also have a 16-80 F3.5-4.5 and an ultra-wide 11-18 F4.5-5.6 which shows excellent sharpness and very little distortion for such focal-length. Third-party manufacturers like Sigma also offer lenses compatible with Sony DSLR cameras.
For under $2000 USD, it is hard to find a more feature-rich camera. The Canon EOS 40D and the nearly-released Nikon D300 shoot a bit faster at 6.5 FPS and 6 FPS, respectively. A few DSLRs like the Pentax K10D are splash-proof due to better weather-seals, while the A700 only has dust-proof memory and battery compartments. Remember that a splash-proof camera is only splash-proof with weather-sealed lenses.
Being aimed at a more advanced market than the Alpha A100, the Alpha A700 is bulkier and heavier. It is quite solid and is definitely tougher than entry-level DSLRs. On the other hand, its larger size is makes it quite noticeable.
Capability - What can it do?
As noted in the introduction, the Sony Alpha A700 has everything expected from a DSLR plus a few unique features. Headline features include a 12 megapixels CMOS sensor, high-sensitivities up to ISO 6400, built-in stabilizationRenamed Super-Steady-Shot from the Konica-Minolta Anti-Shake., eye-start and grip sensorsAlso inherited from Konica-Minolta., dust-reduction mechanism, unlimited 5 FPS continuous drive and its dynamic-range-optimizerWhich is unique to Sony digital cameras. Currently, the Alpha A700, the Alpha A100, the Cybershot DSC-H9 and the Cybershot DSC-H7., called DRO.
The camera's only LCD has multiple duties: playing back images, changing camera settings and displaying status information. In shooting mode, the LCD displays the camera status until it is cleverly deactivated by the eye-start sensor situated under the optical viewfinder. As soon as your eye gets near the viewfinder, the LCD is immediately turned off. This no-user-intervention approach is great because it does exactly what needs to be done smoothly. This saves power and prevents the LCD from interfering with the viewfinder's normal use. Using the LCD as a status display makes it easier to check the camera's status between hand-held shots than with a top mounted LCD. However, when using a tripod below eye-level, a top-mounted LCD would be preferable. Another neat trick with the status display is that it automatically rotates with the camera for improved readability.
Optionally, the auto focusing system can be triggered either by eye-start sensor alone or by the eye-start and grip-sensor together. This is designed to shorten the time to lock focus by letting the camera start focusing before the shutter-release is half-pressed. How useful this is depends on your shooting style. Either way, this feature can be deactivated in the setup menu. Note that the grip-sensor senses skin-contact and not pressure, so it does not work when wearing gloves.
Unique among Sony cameras, the DRO can adjust the brightness levels of photographs before being converted to JPEG. The DRO is designed to help with dynamic-range problems. Recall that a camera can only capture a small dynamic range compared to reality. The DRO has four modes: Off, Standard and Auto-Advanced and Manual-Advanced. Obviously, in the Off mode, the DRO does nothing. The Standard mode adjusts the brightness levels of the image based on the overall image contrast and brightness. The Advanced mode analyses the image and adjusts it differently depending on local brightness and contrast. In Manual-Advanced mode the DRO processing can be applied in 5 different levels. When not certain which level would be better, there is also a 3-frame DRO bracket which brackets the Manual-Advanced DRO parameters with single or double increments.
The DRO is both powerful and dangerous. The power of the DRO is that it can easily produce pleasing images from high-contrast subjects with good shadow and highlight details. The weakness of the DRO is that its effect is hard to predict and may be detrimental to the mood of an image. Often a scene can be rendered quite flat when too much DRO is applied. Also, the DRO cannot fill-in details which have not been captured. Note that the DRO works by modifying the camera's internal RAW conversion used to produce JPEG images. Hence, DRO does not affect RAW images.
The white-balance options of the Alpha A700 are similar to most digital SLR cameras. The automatic white-balance option is fixed while any preset and even custom white-balance can be adjusted on a green-to-magenta scale. The presets have 7 positions along the scale, while the kelvin white-balance has 19. When calibrating custom white-balance, this camera actually reports the Kelvin temperature and the green-to-magenta bias. This is useful to return exactly to a previously measured white-balance.
The exposure-mode-dial of the Sony Alpha A700 has 12 positions. Among those are the typical Program (P), Aperture-priority (A), Shutter-priority (S) and Manual (M) modes. There is a Memory-Recall (MR) mode to store up to 3 sets of camera settings.
There is also an Auto mode which is similar to P but resets all its settings each time it is accessed. Strangely, Auto mode resets image parameters (contrast, saturation and brightness) but not image resolution. This means that it cannot satisfy those looking for a mode where the camera is completely reset to its default and those who dislike the camera's default JPEG rendering.
The last remaining positions are for the following scene modes: Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset and Night portrait. These scene modes are basically presets for options which can otherwise be selected in automatic and semi-automatic modes.
The Auto-Exposure-Lock (AEL) button can be customized in 4 very useful ways. It works either by holding or by toggling. In Hold-mode, the exposure is locked until the AEL button is released. In Toggle-mode, the AEL is locked until either the AEL button is pressed again or the camera enters playback mode. The Toggle-mode is the easiest way to expose for stitched panoramas. The AEL can either use the current metering-mode or spot metering. Having the AEL-button use spot-metering provides a quick way to access spot-metering when faced with difficult lighting. Relative to exposure, a brilliant option is whether Exposure-Compensation (EC) affects ambient or flash+ambient exposure. In ambient-only mode, EC brightens the entire scene including the background. In flash+ambient mode, EC can affect flash output to change the illumination of objects within its range.
This DSLR supports the standard drive modessingle, continuous and self-timer plus 4 bracketing modes. In continuous drive mode, it can shoot an unlimited number of JPEG images, up to 18 RAW images or up to 25 compressed-RAW images. Shooting speed is either 5 or 3 FPS. The self-timer can trigger after 2 or 10 seconds. With the 2-second self-timer, the mirror is automatically locked-up. Sadly, the 10-second self-timer is not reset after each use, as it is with the A100. Automatically resetting the 10-second timer avoids the common mistake of forgetting to do so manually.
The bracketing modes are: single-step exposure bracket, continuous exposure bracket, white-balance bracket and the already mentioned DRO-bracket. Both types of exposure brackets produce 3 or 5 images with 1/3, 1/2 or 2/3 EV steps. Single-step bracket requires the shutter to be pressed for each image in the bracket. Continuous bracket takes all images continuously while the shutter is being pressed.
White-balance bracketing and DRO-bracketing produce 3 images from a single shot. These two drive modes support either a small step or a large step. The small step is 5 mired for white-balance bracketing and a single step in unspecified DRO-units for DRO bracketing. The large step is 10 mired for white-balance bracketing and 2 steps in DRO-units for DRO bracketing.
This DSLR is one of the few to provide some control over dynamic range. While the Alpha's DRO uses processing to attack the problem, the Fuji Finepix S5 Pro's SuperCCD SR provides a hardware solution.
Sony A700 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|12 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-6400|
|Sony A Mount|
|2-Axis Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Custom white-balance with 1 axis fine-tuning|
|Automatic Eye-Start sensor||Spot-Metering|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Hot-Shoe|
|5 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Compact Flash|
|Memory Stick Duo|
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