[Update June 2008] [Update #2 Nov 2 2008]
Recommend this product?
A lot has happened since my last digital camera review in 2006. No longer happy with the image quality, I jumped into the digital SLR market, and Sony’s Alpha A100 was chosen after much internal debate. I’m happy I cut my teeth on Sony’s first salvo, but noise at ISO 400 and above had me looking elsewhere.
I was ready to jump to Nikon, seriously within a hair. Both Sony and Nikon announced their new models and I salivated. Summer 2007 it was announced that Nikon’s D300 and Sony’s new Alpha would sport Sony’s new Exmor CMOS 12MP sensor. I considered waiting for the new Nikon, but it’s now November, and I still can't buy the D300. I will compare the 100 and 700 knowing full well that it’s not fair. The price of the A700 is easily twice that of the A100.
However it’s important because Konica/Minolta users, and A100 owners looking at the A700 will no doubt want the comparisons. In case you don’t know, Sony purchased the now defunct Konica/Minolta. Sony’s new cameras can accept most Minolta AF lenses made since the mid 80's, and they’ve also inherited a lot of customers. With this review, I will try to stay on major points, there is simply too much to cover here. The manual for the A700 is over 170 pages, and that’s not five languages, it’s all English.
What’s in the Box (Body Only)
Info lithium battery
mini remote control
manual, warranty, accessories booklet
* Wide ISO range in 19 increments from 100 to 6400
* New Sony 3" LCD, the best on the market (at this writing) sporting 307,000 pixels
* Sony dumped a maze of menus to make changes and uses buttons for direct access to key changes like ISO, WB, Exposure compensation and drive
* Two memory card slots, one for CF the other accepts Sony’s memory stick
* All new aluminum alloy/magnesium body
* First digital SLR to sport HDMI for displaying images on HDTV
* Improved Super Steady Shot
* 12.2 Megapixels
* New for any digital SLR, noise reduction done on the chip
* New grip sensor eliminates false trigger of the ‘eye start’ function
* New info lithium battery displays power remaining in an exact percentage
* Moved up from penta-mirror to a penta-prism for the viewfinder
* DRO from A100 now has more options and range
* Shutter now rated @ 100,000 cycles
Out of the Box
Holding the A700 for the first time can really make a camera geek giddy. The body is larger, most noticeably the grip, it’s not made for tiny hands. Looking at the layout, I was intimidated by the fact that it’s nothing like the A100, so there’s a new learning curve here. After opening the box, I popped in the battery and there was 9% power available. Did I charge it or play with the camera for about 10 minutes?
I’m a true card carrying nerd, I played with my new toy till the battery cried for mercy. So I bring the viewfinder to my eye, and the difference was huge, literally. The view is larger, brighter, and overall more pleasing. So I hit the shutter which seems to have a shorter travel, it’s very sensitive, some might say touchy. The camera fired off a few frames really quick, and I smiled like the goofy boy that I am.
It’s funny how it’s the little things that can make you happy. Gone is the old dump truck click-clack sound of the A100. The new shutter has a sound that’s short-lived. It sounds like a crisp click with a small cloth wrapped around it. There are other digital SLRs that are much quieter, however the sound is very pleasing. The body also felt lighter than I imagined that it would.
The first few days Firmware 2.0
Initial shooting was a little disorienting, I thought the change would be subtle, but the change was significant. After a couple of days I realized it was all for the better. It got old looking at the LCD and diving into the menu to make a change or fiddle with the main function dial all of the time with the A100. With dedicated buttons for oft used functions like ISO, metering, auto focus and exposure compensation things are much smoother for me now. Better yet, I can make most changes without taking my eye off the viewfinder.
So after loading Sony’s software and reviewing pics here’s what struck me first. The software is improved but nothing radical. A100 users will feel at home. Sony added some touches like highlight/shadow sliders, and noise reduction that actually works this time. Better yet, the software is surprisingly powerful, it can be very aggressive with noise (if you choose) and yet it won’t obliterate detail.
My first impression of the images out of the camera are positive. Jpegs look great, the color and contrast are good, and at low ISO the pictures are silky smooth. Sony hasn’t touted the fact that dynamic range has improved over the A100. It’s not film, but it’s an improvement. Taking pictures of trees with a strong back light, I can recover much more detail in post with those kinds of pictures, more than I could with the A100.
However the images are a tad soft out of the camera (standard setting, everything set to zero) compared to the A100. Also, early third party support has been poor. Photoshop and lightroom are almost de facto programs and their handling of A700 RAW files has been disappointing. The Sony Software is pretty good, it’s just not a real workflow tool, hence the issues with other software. Things are getting better with updates and patches so I’m now optimistic about this issue.
Memory it’ll cost you.
It’ll cost you hard-drive space, it’ll cost you a new memory card, it’ll cost you time because huge RAW files take longer to open and manipulate. The A700 is a memory hog. Sony’s new compressed RAW format cRAW takes up about 12MB per photo. Unlike Canon’s compressed RAW, Sony’s claims that their version is lossless. I’m not so sure, but I can’t prove it either way. RAW files run 18MB to nearly 20MB each.
To give you an idea, my 2 gigabyte card is only good for about 100 RAW shots. That’s nothing, you can bust out a few hundred pictures at a small wedding. Serious shooters should look at nothing less than 8GB cards and fast ones at that. The A700 features two memory slots, one for CompactFlash, the other for Sony’s proprietary format. It could be seen as a bonus, having two formats to write to for safety sake. You still have to switch between them manually, but it’s nice to have
Buffer memory is pretty deep, and the camera can write pretty fast, it’s all about what card you use. My once adequate 2GB 80x card can at times, huff and puff in the A700. At 5 frames per second, I can burst 10 RAW shots before the camera has to stop for my slow card. A new 300x card has solved this problem. Now I can shoot nearly 20 RAW/25 cRAW shots in a string @ 5 per second. Even better, after a tiny pause, the camera can still chug along at 1-1.5 frames per second if you insist on continuing to shoot. You can burst fine jpegs without stopping until your card is full.
Let’s talk about noise
It’s the current hot topic, people want the ability to shoot at a very high ISO and have relatively low noise in the image. If you shoot weddings, or night games, this is a must. Your flash can’t always reach out, and in some cases a flash can ruin things. When noise does start to really kick in at around ISO 1000 and 1250, it’s a fine, nearly colorless grain. It’s nothing like the A100. To my naked and unscientific eye, ISO 400 on the original Alpha looks like ISO 1250 or 1600 on the A700, it just depends on what you are shooting.
Not everything is perfect however. Images can start to look noisy at a lower ISO if the image is very complex. Try shooting a big green lawn or trees and big furry cats and the noise can start to get heavy by ISO 800 or 1000. I’ve noticed that the A700 can be fussy at times with noise when the image isn’t simple. Shooting the fog that rolls in during the early morning over the vineyards here in wine county, noise became noticeable at ISO 500.
Bottom line here, the A700 isn’t just a little better at high ISO, overall it’s a lot better. After printing up my own photos, I’ve come to this conclusion. Properly exposed photos and a little noise work in post at ISO 3200, 4000 and 5000 the A700 can deliver acceptable results at 8.5x11. By acceptable I mean you could charge for them, but you have to over expose just a bit and nail the focus. Looking at ISO 6400, image quality is hit and miss at that size. I look at ISO 6400 as something to use in a pinch. Printing up to 5X7 in size you can shoot at any ISO, and with very little work in post, the results will usually be pleasing.
At this writing, it’s the best on the market at any price. It’s 3.0 inches, sporting 307,000 pixels in that tiny area. Forget your average PC monitor, this screen sports 270 ppi. Yes it’s the most crispy thing you’ve ever seen. Sony’s LCD is so sweet, that Nikon chose it for their forthcoming D300 and flagship D3. All this resolution came with a tiny price. Color fidelity was a touch better and the viewing angle was just a tad wider on the A100 2.5 inch model. I have no tests to back that up, it’s just what my eye tells me.
For the A700 Sony’s added an HDMI connection to view photos on HDTVs equipped with such a port. The camera can output standard definition, 720p and 1080i signals. Shots taken in jpeg, cRAW and RAW all display just fine. Widescreen photos are displayed properly on widescreen TVs. Standard photos have small black bars on each side, smaller than 4:3 standard TV signals do. The picture quality is grade A. The included mini remote controls the show, and it doubles as a wireless trigger.
Cool feature, but Sony blew it. There is no option to crop standard 3:2 photos to fill your widescreen with an image. Yes you can zoom in manually for one photo, but nothing works automatically. I consider another mistake a flaw that should be fixed in firmware. When the slide show gets to the final picture, the camera simply displays that image and does nothing else. There should be an option to play without end, or a screen saver mode. I waited to see if anything would happen, but I didn’t want to wait too long.
Why? One word, plasma. There could be damage to standard CRT and plasma TVs. Another negative point, the camera will only display pictures generated by the A700. I’m working to get around this, I will post info if I’m successful. The HDMI port is great for taking a quick look at anything you shot that day but not much else. It would have been nice to load the extra card slot with a memory stick just for displaying pictures.
Summing up the A700 Pros and Cons
* Shutter easily triggered and considered touchy by some photographers
* LCD definition is higher but loses some color fidelity, viewing angle a bit better on the A100
* Konica/Minolta users that have adopted Sony miss the two dials on top. Never having owned such cameras, I don’t miss a thing
* Battery door still flimsy-ish, still plastic, still no rubber gasket
* AEL dial way too stiff, hope this loosens up over time.
* Don’t care for the new AF mode dial near the lens release button. I would prefer it was near the AF/MF release button on the back
* The HDMI connection/slide show could have been great
* Battery life seems shorter than A100, especially when shooting in continuous AF
* Fantastic aluminum frame and magnesium alloy body still covered in too much plastic
* A700 takes longer than A100 to scan through images, and delete them, I have no idea why
* I would have liked better sealing in the body, like Nikon’s D300. But then it would probably cost as much as a D300
* Even with proper focus, images are on the soft side out of the camera compared to the A100, better software support should fix this
* Noise reduction in-camera (for high ISO) cannot be turned off completely. Only low, normal and high
* High ISO performance blows the doors off the A100
* While not touted by Sony, the dynamic range is greater than the A100 chip
* ISO increments are finer allowing 19 ISO choices from 100 to 6400
* Larger, higher res LCD makes reviewing easier and more accurate
* Quick Nav system makes the LCD interactive
* Flash Picture quality improved, flash sync up to 1/250 max, recycles faster than A100
* Faster auto focus and overall improved despite the occasional hunting
* DOF preview button is now something that can be seen and felt. The button on the A100 was nearly nano sized
* Memory recall sports three separate fully customizable user profiles
* Shutter sound is angelic compared to the dump truck sound of the A100
* Overall fit & finish is top notch. Made in Japan not Malaysia or Taiwan
* View finder: The image is large, bright, and a huge improvement
* Two memory card slots. You still have to change manually, but it’s a nice extra
* In spite of my issues with it, the HDMI connection and picture quality on HDTV is tops, the implementation of it is a fumble.
* Reviewing all your pictures for sharpness is faster. You can zoom in a specified amount, and scroll through all photos at that magnification, bravo Sony.
* No live view. Yes for me it’s a pro. Have you ever used live view on a digital SLR? It’s slow, clumsy and painful. I’d have to hear Sony owners groan about making it better, talking about how much it sucks. I’d rather see Sony improve live view over what Nikon, Canon, Panasonic and others are pushing, or just leave it off the table. In the end I don’t need it. Portrait shooters might feel otherwise
* Sony improved the steady shot. All of my lenses including my primes are stabilized. Canon and Nikon want you to spend big bucks on limited offerings when it comes to IS lenses
* Like the Alpha A100, the orientation of the LCD changes for portrait mode left or right. Great for those that purchase the magnesium grip
Sony is here and they are serious. With only one camera, the Alpha A100 they captured over 6% of the digital SLR market. It feels like it’s time to stop with the comparisons to Konica/Minolta of the past . This is an all new camera from the ground up. Sony is probably the only player in the DSLR market that can build every single part of the camera without any outside assistance.
Sony’s second DSLR is a powerful tool, and the reviews from pro reviewers, hobbyists and all around geeks have been positive across the board. The A700 has even edged out its nearest competitor the mighty Canon 40D in more than one review and it’s almost like it never happened. However I still haven’t forgotten that Sony can fumble in spectacular fashion no matter how well they are doing.
They went from world dominant champs with the Playstation 2, to chumps with the PS3 (hey it hurts to say it). Now, Sony has hit two out of the park, and they must deliver something amazing in their flagship model for 2008 to really dig in. Too many people falsely believed that Nikon and Canon owners needed to be swayed . Sony is instead scooping up new players (like myself) and Konica/Minolta owners with a lot invested in a lens family. The Alpha A700 is powerful and flexible enough to satisfy someone using their camera to make a living.
That I couldn’t say absolutely about the A100 considering its high ISO performance. I highly recommend the A700 in spite of a few small issues. I’m really happy with my new Alpha and look forward to the flagship. While everyone seems to be referring to this mystery camera as the ‘A900' I have a feeling it will be called the Alpha One.
Four stars. For the Money, the A700 could have scored 5 stars if...
1. The option to turn off noise reduction completely is made available (post chip)
2. Stop covering the sweet metal body with so much plastic
3. Stop being so cheap, put a real gasket on the memory card and battery door.
4. The HDMI is great now utilize it to its full potential, fix the slide show, and let me view any photo that I want on the LCD and on the big screen.
5. Make switching between two memory cards easier or automatic.
UPDATE June 23 2008
So now a few more months have passed and I'm still very happy with my purchase of Sony's current top dog. A lot has happened since I first posted this review. Sony launched the successor to the A100 (the A200) and two new models, the 10mp A300 and the 14 MP A350. Also confirmed was the flagship sporting Sony's new 24 megapixel full frame chip.
Something I didn't know, I was not aware that while the A700 is UDMA compatible (taking advantage of 266x and 300x cards) many new dSLRs are not. I didn't know this. Many more expensive camera bodies and even current similar dSLRs can't take advantage of such speeds because they aren't UDMA compliant. This might not seem like much, but having a faster card for long strings of RAW shots and when transferring to a PC can make things so much faster and less frustrating.
Wow! So much has happened in such a short time. The Alpha Family of dSLRs has earned the respect of real people that write reviews at epinions, blogs, and forums/boards. The flagship has yet to drop, but info trickles in. So far my A700 has been a champ but I still have little issues with it.
Correction A little something I discovered that made something I stated in my initial review incorrect. The memory card door does have a gasket of sorts, but it's easy to miss. On the body around the two card slots is a rubber type gasket that's flush with the body. The door that opens has a raised kind of plastic cup in it. This cup pinches right up against that gasket to form a seal. While I wouldn't trust it for diving purposes, it should keep out dust, moisture and an accidental splash or two.
I now spend a little more time in Manual mode and AP mode. I've spent more time taking flash photos,and I'm not a big fan of the flash on the A700. My main gripe is that its reach is too short. I still hate that Sony doesn't implement a solid accessible way to attach LCD protection.
It's part of the reason I damaged my beautiful LCD screen. I used a glass cover because they don't scratch and it wouldn't fall off. I heard the Sony cover fell off easy and scratched easily. Well about six weeks or so into that, at some point a nailed that glass cover and broke it ( I use my A700 every single day). I carefully removed that cover only to find two very deep scratches about 1/4 long. Not big, but on a 3" LCD, yeah they were huge. I was mad, decided no more glass.
I purchased a plastic cover, a ACMAXX. It's scratch resistant, even after a few weeks of wiping it with whatever I had in reach, it was hard to see micro scratches. A few weeks into the ACMAXX the power button went totally limp, missing that crisp click. Looking closer I see the power button is cracked! I breaks into two pieces. I go to Sony support, follow instructions and mail A700 in.
About 12 days later, it's back in my hands power button fixed. But wait, my ACMAXX is gone! Why? Oh wait, Sony, free of charge removed my old LCD cover and the ACMAXX and installed a brand new one! Yes my A700 was exactly like new again. Sony even cleaned all the dust off the body, cleaned the viewfinder, it was spotless. On the negative side all my settings were reset, the shutter actuations were zero again and my ACMAXX? Who knows where it is. Bravo Sony.
I went to the the Sony store and ordered Sony's official hard LCD protector. It clips on, but it's not the super firm grip I'd like. It can be knocked off if you carry your cam with the LCD against your body. While the image seen through the protector is sharp, the plastic is too soft attention Sony! Yes this thing is a scratch magnet. It SUCKS! It sucks hard. But it looks nice, like it belongs on the camera.
I'm still irked by the A700 and its habit of underexposing just a bit in multi-pattern metering. Center weight rarely seems to solve this, and spot meter can fix this issue, but sometimes causes your images to blow out as it tries to expose for something that needs to be somewhat dark like tires, a dark face, or a black shirt.
NeatImage has been a huge help in getting me shots that are very 'poor man's D3' when shooting at ISO 3200,4,5 and 6400. A700 owners, don't discount that pro duo memory slot. It's a great way to add memory without ditching your current CF card. Another thing I've started to do for tourists that own Sony cybershot P&S cams, give them a pro pic. Ask them for their memory card, pop it in the A700, switch to xfine jepgs, take shots, give card back.
I've also discovered that pro duo sticks with photos on them taken with Sony cyber shot cameras will display properly on the A700, but not the other way around. However all A700 photos placed on a stick from a cybershot will look just fine once dumped onto a PC or Mac.
Back to Sony memory...you can fork over big money for the fast Sandisk pro duo HG (30MB sec 200x) or even pricier Sony duo HG (40MB sec 266x) or go another way. Look for cheap pro duo deals, you can find them. I just picked up a 2GB pro duo (15MB sec 100x) for 19.99, so I added some cheap memory while my CF card stays in place. That slow pro duo will allow me to take 11 RAW shots before it slows down. Not too shabby for a slow card. Of course these capacities will go up and prices will drop very fast.
Another gripe, in 'Quick Nav' which I love by the way, why can't I change memory cards? I can move to all the symbols and make changes but not the CF or memory stick symbol. This makes me very unhappy. Also I want to assign ISO to either the front or rear dial. I'd like to see those to issues tackled in firmware V4.
[Nov 2008] So the V4 firmware update was leaked just before the launch of the Alpha A900. Sony officially released the update about two weeks later. Huge improvement. With the relationship that Sony has with Nikon, it's very possible that Nikon's pic processing software is at the heart of this update. Finally, after much complaining, Sony gives the option to turn noise reduction off completely.
The noise profile is now of a much finer grain giving the appearance of more detail. Gone is the smearing and lumpy large grain that popped up at ISO 3200, 4000, 5000, and 6400.
Also updated (via Sony website) is an update for Sony's image conversion software to version 3. It's much better looking and smoother piece of work. It's reminds me of a low fat version of photoshop elements.
Also addressed by Sony after being constantly asked by A700 owners is a larger spread in the bracketing department. Now, handheld HDR type shots can be taken. Sony did not address the ability of the quicknav to address the memory card. Bummer. Other little changes were made, those were the most obvious to me. With the V4 firmware update, and free upgrade of the conversion software, Sony added more value and life to the A700.
With things changing so fast in the dSLR market, the A700 is due for an update even though it's barely 16 months old. Canon has already launched the 50d, and update to the A700 competitor 40d. With Sony squeezing more from this sensor, I'm sure all Alpha fans will be pleased with the body that replaces the A700, I can't wait to see it.
lots of A700 sample pics, all ISO range is covered.
© Tony Flores 2007/2008
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Amount Paid (US$): 1300
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Solid Enough for a Professional