Like a mythical bird rising from the ashes of Konica Minolta, Sony's first digital SLR, named the Alpha DSLR-A100, marks the company's entry into the top division of digital still imaging. With a 10.2-megapixel CCD sensor, a bevy of convenience features, an updated version of Konica Minolta's CCD-shift image stabilisation, and a design that improves slightly on the Dynax 5D, Sony has delivered a worthy competitor in the sub-£800 dSLR market.
Since the camera accepts Dynax AF lenses, anyone with an existing collection of such lenses should be happy with this camera. At the same time, the DSLR-A100 offers a very serious alternative to the usual Canon and Nikon offerings for dSLR newbies. Sony offers the DSLR-A100 in two flavours: a body only for around £600 and in a kit with the body and an 18mm-to-70mm lens for around £700.
Sony has definitely benefited from its purchase of Konica Minolta's dSLR know-how. The Sony Alpha DSLR-A100's body feels very comfortable in our hands, which makes sense since it closely resembles the now-defunct Dynax 5D. Sony has added some flair with shiny black plastic around the shutter and on the edge of the pop-up flash, and also moved some controls around, but it would be easy to mistake the DSLR-A100 for the 5D if the two were sitting next to each other.
Chief among Sony's design tweaks was to put a group of often-used controls on a dial to the left of the flash. All you have to do is select a function -- such as ISO, white balance or metering mode -- and press the function button in the centre of the dial to change that setting. In our field tests, it made choosing functions quick and easy. It's not quite as easy to control as the Konica Minolta 7D, with all of its dedicated dials and buttons, but it is a definite step up from the 5D and other dSLRs that scatter so many dedicated function buttons throughout the camera back and top. Unfortunately, Sony has left the drive mode button on the top of the camera and moved it further back, away from the shutter button. We found it awkward to press, and since the 5D had three buttons on its back, it could have easily fit there instead.
Other buttons are logically placed, including the usual lineup of menu and playback controls that flank the 64mm (2.5-inch), 230,000-pixel LCD screen. The antishake control -- now renamed as Super Steady Shot, even though it's a CCD-shift instead of the lens-shifting stabilisation that's found in other Sony cameras with an identically named feature -- has a dedicated on/off switch on the bottom right of the camera back.
If you're new to SLRs, you'd probably count the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100's 10.2-megapixel CCD as its biggest feature. SLR veterans, however, will look past the pixels to the camera's wide array of other features. For example, if you shoot lots of action, you'll probably like the eye-start autofocus. A sensor below the viewfinder activates the camera's autofocus whenever it's tripped. So, when you look through the finder, your face triggers the sensor, and the camera starts locking the focus right away. While useful for certain situations, it can be annoying and tends to drain your battery more quickly, since it'll also start focusing if any object comes within about an inch of the sensor.
Of course, the Super Steady Shot image stabilisation is one of the camera's biggest selling points. According to Sony, they've updated Konica Minolta's CCD shift technology and now claim between 2 and 3.5 stops of leeway in exposure, so you can shoot without a tripod at slower shutter speeds. In our field tests we found that, while 3.5 stops is a stretch, they're right about the 2 extra stops. That means you can set your shutter speed 2 stops lower than your slowest comfortable speed and still expect reasonably sharp images -- you'll have to make sure your subject stays still though. Since the image stabilisation moves the sensor, you don't have to buy premium lenses to get the advantage, as you do with Canon and Nikon's image-stabilised lenses.
Speaking of lenses, since the Alpha system uses the same lens mount as Konica Minolta's old Dynax dSLRs, most Dynax AF lenses and third-party AF-mount lenses work with the DSLR-A100. Just remember, the camera's APS-C-size sensor gives you an angle of view that's equivalent to that of a lens with a 1.5x greater focal length compared with a full frame of 35mm film. So, the 18mm-to-70mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 lens included in the £700 Alpha kit becomes the approximate equivalent of a 27mm-to-105mm lens. Sony makes no guarantees of lens compatibility beyond the Sony Alpha lenses that it is marketing, but a Minolta lens that we tried worked fine. Plus, as the Dynaxes do, the DSLR-A100 shakes the sensor each time you turn the camera on or off to help keep it free of any dust that may enter the camera while switching lenses. Sony also coats the sensor with a special coating to avoid static build-up, which would attract dust particles.
As you'd expect, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 has the usual array of metering options, including 40-segment honeycomb pattern MultiSegment, centre-weighted and spot. As for autofocus, you can let the camera choose from nine focus segments, you can choose one of your own or set it to use only the centre-spot segment. At any time, you can switch to centre-spot AF by pressing the button in the middle of the four-way rocker on the camera back.
ISO is, perhaps, the biggest surprise in the A100. In addition to normal options for ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, there are Lo80 and Hi200 options. The last two aren't just extensions of the ISO range, as with the boost modes offered by Nikon, Canon and others. Instead, they're intended for low-key and high-key images, or in layman's terms, very dark or very light scenes. Lo80 emphasises detail in dark portions of a picture, even if it is at the expense of some detail in brighter areas. And Hi200, which is closest to ISO 200 in its sensitivity, is customised to eke out more detail in brighter parts of your images, although it may sacrifice some detail in the darkest areas. Both of these seem useful for photographers interested in becoming more creative, but we wish Sony would've offered an ISO boost to an equivalent of ISO 3,200, since most dSLRs include this.