Sony's A700 is the best semi-pro / pro SLR for the price.
Jun 12, 2008 (Updated Aug 2, 2008)
Review by jvandegr
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Recommend this product?
My Sony A350 has left me in a tough spot. I like it too much. I expected that I would find too many shortcomings with a camera made by a company that makes televisions. Evidently, Sony's legacy of digital imaging and video, combined with their acquisition of Minolta, is really paying off because they're producing digital SLRs that easily compete with and even surpass the industry leaders, Nikon and Canon. The mechanical failures of my Nikon D300 pushed me to look elsewhere for my equipment, and my A350 purchase was my first leap from the Nikon ship. I've fallen in love with Minolta glass now and can't go back, so I took another leap and bought the Sony (Alpha) a700. I should have done this earlier.
The specifications and features of the A700 are described on many websites, so I'll just describe the features that have really made this such a great photographic tool for me.
1) In-camera image stabilization (Super Steady Shot). This is much better than lens-based image stabilization because it works with any lens, even my 20-year old Minoltas. This means less weight, less cost, and a much simpler system. Nikon and Canon have fallen way behind here.
2) Large buttons instead of a top LCD screen. Sony figured it out first - get rid of the useless top LCD screen (don't worry, there are two more, you'll be fine!) and replace it with useful controls (ISO, white balance, drive).
3) Extremely fast autofocus. By some, considered to be the fastest in the industry. Focus accuracy is also very good in most situations, including low light.
4) Vertical grip design. Molded like the grip on the camera body, it feels more comfortable and has more functionality than any other vertical grip.
5) Dedicated AF/MF button on the rear panel. For lenses without full-time manual focus over-ride, toggling this button allows me to easily move in and out of autofocus mode without reaching around to the front to flip a switch.
The ergonomics of the A700 are second to none. From the perfectly molded grip to the widely-spaced top panel function buttons, this camera makes advanced photography easy. Rarely do I need to access the menu but when I do, it's the most logically designed menu system of any camera I've ever used. This means less time changing settings and more time shooting and sometimes, it means the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot. Speaking of getting the shot, the eye-activated focus feature and grip sensor can really speed up the photographic process. As soon as the viewfinder is near my eye, the camera has already focused on the last used focus point. In photojournalism, this can be extremely useful. Again, Sony is ahead of Nikon and Canon here. Since this isn't a feature that is always needed, it can be easily turned off in the menu to save battery power.
The three inch LCD is the best in the industry, and presumably the same LCD used on the Nikon D300. It has amazing clarity and brightness. No LCD screen works great in direct sunlight, but this one puts in the best performance I've seen yet (along with the Nikon D300). Unlike the Nikon D300, the Sony A700 has no live view capability, which is a great thing - the D300's live view is the most worthless of any I've used. The Sony A300 and A350, on the other hand, have an extremely useful live view and for this reason, I'm glad to have an A350 as a back-up camera to the A700.
The viewfinder is big and bright, much like the D300's viewfinder. However, it has better eye relief than the D300, making it easier to use for those with prescription eyeglasses, or while wearing protective eyewear. This viewfinder is noticeably larger than the A350's viewfinder, but at the cost of live view capability. In general, I'm very pleased with it and the only thing I change is the coverage - 95% isn't bad, but I would love 98% for those critically framed shots.
One of my small complaints about the A700 is the lack of ability to change file name prefixes. With multiple cameras, uploading files to my workstation is much easier if the cameras record different file names prefixes. All of my Nikon cameras have this ability, so I'm a little disappointed Sony's top-of-the-line camera does not. Hopefully, this is something that gets addressed in a firmware update.
Cameras that are designed for continuous professional use, such as the Nikon D3, can take just about anything you can throw at them. If you continually abuse your camera day in and day out because of the rigors of your job, then the Nikon D3 is for you. If, however, you are like many advanced amateur and professional photographers who need a very rugged but not indestructable camera, the A700 will not disappoint. Its metal body feels very solid and has taken a few hits already without any problems. The buttons have rubber gaskets to seal out dust and moisture. Of course, this does not mean the camera is waterproof, but I've had no trouble shooting in light rain and a couple dust storms.
This camera is built in Japan and the corresponding level of quality is apparent. My experience with Japanese-made cameras is that they are most often better made than those from China or Southeast Asia. I'm sure there are some exceptions, but I haven't found any with Sony cameras. The buttons and dials have a very quality feel. I detect little if any unwanted play in any of the buttons or dials. All of my Minolta lenses mate solidly to the lens mount, which again is more than I can say for the recent Nikon cameras I have owned.
The A700 has won at least one award for its autofocus speed and it's clear to see why. Until I used this camera, I just assumed my Nikon D300 was the fastest thing out there because I couldn't find any other SLR that could keep up. Even with older Minolta lenses, the A700's focusing system is remarkably fast. Sometimes, I worry that it may be too fast. In difficult lighting situations, I don't mind if my camera spends a little time to get the focus right, as long as it gets it right. Thankfully, Sony allows the focus speed to be controlled in these situations by selecting the speed in the shooting menu. I've been impressed with the accuracy of the A700's autofocus system nearly as much as I'm impressed with its speed. On occasion, I get a front-focused or back-focused shot, but it's very rare and probably partially due to user error.
In low light situations, the A700's autofocus maintains speed and accuracy as well as any camera I have ever owned, and the same is true for the A350. Some poorly written online reviews suggest that these cameras don't focus well in low light. This is absolutely not the case. All of these poor reviews used cheap, small aperture zoom lenses for their testing. On any camera, these types of lenses lose accuracy and speed in low light. With even a half decent lens, the A700 emerges as one of the best low light focusing cameras available, and the A350 follows it. A dedicated autofocus assist light on the A700's body automatically fires in low light situations to assure accurate focus.
All together, the A700's autofocus system is one of the best in the business, if not the best. Of course, no system is perfect and I have one small complaint about using autofocus on the A700. The autofocus points are usually easy to see in the viewfinder, but when I choose a different focus point with the focus selector, the illumination of the new point is so dim in bright shooting conditions that I can't see which point I've selected. In low to moderate light, I usually don't have any problems. Still, this is an easy problem to fix and I hope Sony addresses it in the A700 successor.
I've been very impressed with the metering capabilities of my Sony A350. Most of the time, its multi-segment metering mode is slightly more accurate than my much more expensive Nikon D300. The A700 has a different multi-segment structure that doesn't quite have the same accuracy as the A350, but is about the same as my D300. I've noticed there is a slight tendency for the A700 to overexpose by about 1/3 - 1/2 of an f-stop. This is easily corrected in the camera by adjusting the exposure compensation setting.
On all three of these cameras, I've been impressed with the accuracy of the center-weighted and spot metering modes. However, there is a big difference between Nikon's metering system and Sony's metering system that can significantly impact a photographer's workflow. In matrix metering (Nikon's name for multi-segment) on the D300, I simply focus lock with half press of the shutter button, recompose, and the camera adjusts the exposure according to my new composition. On both the A350 and the A700, the exposure value automatically locks when focus lock is activated with a half press of the shutter button. This is not the case with center-weighted metering or spot metering. To me, this seems backward and I much prefer the Nikon approach. I can only complain so much though because I haven't missed any shots yet because of it. Also, there are work-arounds. The AF/MF button can be programmed to autofocus only, and the shutter release button can be programmed to meter only. Alternatively, a dedicated auto-exposure lock button can be used, although this requires more time and could result in missed shots.
In practical use, the A700 has noise levels and sharpness that are comparable with every other digital SLR in its class. Noise only becomes visible in real-world tests at appropriate viewing distances at ISO 1600 and above. Based on my test shots, the red channel seems to contain the most noise so I try to avoid higher ISOs if shooting bright red subjects that fill the frame. The default sharpness is set a little low in the A700, which is my preference because it's easier to work with in post-processing. Some users will prefer to have more out-of-camera sharpness, and this is easily adjusted in the camera's menu.
Where the A700's image quality outperforms its competition is color. Like the A350, colors are vivid with good tonality, without being over-saturated. Actually, I think the A350 has even smoother tonal gradients, but the A700 still impresses. Similarly, my A350 seems to have just a little more dynamic range than the A700, but the A700 seems to have just a little more range than the Nikon D300. Is this Sony's Bionz image processing engine at work? Could be. In any case, Sony is clearly showing their commitment to image quality. These observations apply to both RAW and JPEG files. Right out of the camera, JPEG quality is very good at the lowest compression setting. My A350 seems to have slightly lower JPEG quality at this same setting. Of course, to get the most of your images, Sony's ARW format (a type of RAW file) is the way to go. With a file size of approximately 18.7 MB each, you'll need some serious storage space if you do a lot of shooting with this format. For many shooters, the 6 MB JPEG files will be sufficient.
Sony's battery management system works well. The info-lithium batteries accurately indicate remaining battery life with a touch of the display button. The included battery charger is a little bulky compared to the competition, but it's easy enough to carry and charges a completed depleted battery in about three hours. The battery itself is a better design than the EN-EL3e batteries I use in my Nikon D300 because it has cylindrical, recessed battery contacts that are much less likely to be damaged in my pack, or develop corrosion. No need for a plastic cover to protect the contacts. In general, these batteries just seem much more rugged than what I'm used to.
Battery life is outstanding. Sony claims about 730 shots on one charge, but in practice I've been getting 1000 shots on a single charge. This includes light use of the LCD for changing menu options and reviewing images. Only the Nikon D300 offer better battery life, and just barely.
Sony's first serious contender in the semi-pro / pro digital SLR market is a tough one to beat. For its cost, you simply can't beat it. After just a few weeks of shooting, I already regarded it as a reliable, capable, and very comfortable camera. Its image quality is on par with any of the other cameras in its class, and its overall speed (not just frame rate) is best in class. In some ways, it is more of a photographic tool than cameras costing hundreds of dollars more. I find it easy to recommend, because it is hard to be disappointed by.
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Amount Paid (US$): 1100
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Solid Enough for a Professional
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