It’s been over two years since Sony released the Alpha DSLR-A100K (), its first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. The DSLR-A100K was a good camera based on technology that Sony acquired from Konica Minolta’s DSLR division, but two years is a long time in the digital photography universe. Camera technology has changed since the DSLR-A100K’s release.
Now, Sony has released the newest in its Alpha line, the Alpha DSLR-A700. With some important upgrades and a number of changes, the DSLR-A700 aims at a different type of photographer than the type that would use the DSLR-A100K. Hoping to lure advanced amateurs, the DSLR-A700 competes strongly against DSLRs like Canon’s EOS 40D () and Nikon’s D300 ().
The DSLR-A700 has a 12.2-megapixel CMOS sensor and a Bionz (Sony’s name for its new imaging chip that has been optimized for the DSLR-A700’s sensor) image processor. With the combination of the new sensor and image processor, the DSLR-A700 offers good noise reduction and a performance boost over the DSLR-A100K. With a burst speed of 5 frames per second and a raw buffer that can hold 18 Raw files, the DSLR-A700 is right in line with its competition, performance-wise.
In the viewfinder, the DSLR-A700 uses a pentaprism (to reflect light from the lens to the viewfinder) rather than a pentamirror. The practical upshot is that the pentaprism in the DSLR-A700 creates an image in the viewfinder that’s brighter and clearer than the pentamirror viewfinder image in the DSLR-A100K.
Like the DSLR-A100K, the DSLR-A700 uses a sensor-based stabilization mechanism to help reduce the effect of camera shake on your shots. The stabilizer is definitely improved, and does seem to offer at least three stops of stabilization (Sony claims four stops). Your mileage will vary depending on how steady your hand is. The one major downside to sensor-based stabilization is that you don’t actually see the effects of the stabilization inside the viewfinder, making it difficult to frame telephoto shots.
The DSLR-A700 lens kit includes a 16mm to 105mm f/3.5 to f/5.6 lens, which has a 35mm film equivalency of 24mm to 160mm. The lens is small and light, and delivers decent image sharpness with some occasional chromatic aberration (purple fringes that appear around high-contrast edges).
The DSLR-A700 is well made and sturdy; like the Olympus E-3 () that it competes with, it offers weather sealing that helps it withstand dust and moisture. The handgrip has good moldings that make for a firm grip and easy handling. Like the DSLR-A100K, the DSLR-A700 has a good number of external controls and buttons. In general, you won’t have to dive into a menu to adjust basic shooting functions. However, some of the controls, like drive mode, white balance, and ISO, are difficult to reach without changing your grip on the camera, whether you’re looking through the viewfinder or not. This slows down shooting and makes the camera more cumbersome than it needs to be.
A mode dial on the top of the camera lets you change from program mode to priority and manual modes, as well as to custom scene modes. Exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, drive mode, and program shift can all be set from external controls.
Unfortunately, the viewfinder doesn’t show ISO settings. You have to frustratingly move your eye from the viewfinder to change ISO; if you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’ll find that the ISO control is not positioned for easy access.
The camera lacks a top-mounted status display; its 3-inch rear LCD is used to display camera settings. The DSLR-A700’s LCD offers high resolution and a bright display that’s easy to see in sunlight. That said, I still prefer a dedicated status display; they’re easier to see and you don’t have to figure out how to turn them on and off.
The problem with using the LCD for status is that when you look through the viewfinder, there’s a bright screen shining in your eye. Sony addresses this problem with a proximity sensor that automatically turns the screen on and off as you put the camera to your eye. This works well most of the time, but there are still times when the LCD screen becomes a distraction. For example, if you’re looking through the viewfinder and you activate the Exposure Compensation control, the LCD lights up. In low light, the bright screen can obscure your view.
Sony uses the proximity detector for another purpose. The camera’s continuous autofocus feature (which tells the camera to constantly autofocus as the camera is moved around) automatically activates when you put the camera to your eye, and deactivates as you take the camera away. This can help save battery life. The most glaring missing feature is live view—the ability to use the LCD as a viewfinder. I don’t use live view often, but because all of the competing cameras have this feature, its absence from the DSLR-A700 is quite noticeable.
Macworld’s buying advice
The Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 is close to being a strong competitor in the DSLR market. It can produce good images, but it’s obvious when using the camera that Sony does not have the legacy of interface development that Canon and Nikon have. The DSLR-A700 has enough handling quirks to frustrate photographers, especially those who suddenly find themselves in a photo opportunity.
[Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, fourth edition (Charles River Media, 2007).]
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