The integral lens SLR camera
does have some precedent in the film world--it's what Olympus
called the Z-SLR a number of years back, and the camera models in that
line-up enjoyed limited success and spawned a group of digital Z-SLRs
called the E-10 and E-20. Now that Olympus has cast their dice in the
interchangeable lens SLR game with their E-1, and even Pentax has come
into the fold with their oddly named but highly functional *ist D, the
world perhaps awaits the Minolta interchangeable lens digital SLR as
well. The A1 isn't it, and perhaps we'll have to wait for
photokina in the fall of 2004 to see if Minolta lens owners can use
their Maxxum lenses on a digital SLR body.
You can get quite close with the DiMAGE A1, as seen in this
image of dolls at a flea market in Warrensburg, New York.
The EVF works as well as the LCD for such images, unlike
other digicams that have parallax error due to their non-SLR
Photos © 2003, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved
this, the A1 shows off many of the functional and technical matters that
Minolta has mastered of late and is a highly useable 5-megapixel digicam.
The lens is a beaut, being a zoom with 16 elements in 13 groups and sporting
an equivalent 28-200mm optical zoom range. And there's no power
(motorized) zoom to wrestle with when going through the range, as you
actually manually zoom as the camera breezes through autofocusing for
you. Some will find this refreshing, while others might still be searching
for the power
The minimum focusing distance, for those who like to shoot close, is 1.6
ft throughout the range, although you can get close by using macro mode
at the wide setting at 9.8" and virtually closest by using macro
in tele at 9.8". As you zoom to tele you do lose a stop, going from
the maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/3.5. This is no great loss since you
can vary ISO up to 800, although cooler heads will want to keep it in
the ISO 100 and 200 range and rely on the camera's shake controls
to help them out and keep things steady.
The camera takes CompactFlash cards (Type I and II) but will not take
the new 4GB cards that require FAT 32 protocol. You can record in JPEG,
TIFF and Minolta raw as well as get motion images and record with sound.
you first open DiMAGE Viewer you are met with a typical
browser. Every image shows up in a nice, sharp and readable
slide sheet format. Clicking on a Minolta raw file opens
the DiMAGE raw filer viewer.
Camera Controls And
At first glance the camera body seems complicated, but it's actually
pretty straightforward and thankfully gives you most controls on the body
rather than forcing you to fish through the screen menu. There's
an exposure mode dial with manual, shutter and aperture-priority along
with Program and Scene modes, including an unusual "sunset subject"
program. The back has various controllers, with a jog-like dial for making
choices, menu button, playback and record and a choice for viewing through
the LCD monitor or EVF.
Now, I must admit to a prejudice against electronic viewfinders. I find
them difficult at best to view through, especially when there's
any kind of contrast in the scene. While the Minolta EVF is an improvement
over many I've seen I still find myself working mainly through the
LCD. What the EVF does give you, though, is direct contact with your image
information, if desired, without taking your eye from the finder. Once
you gain familiarity with the myriad of control buttons and dials you
can get involved with you take without having to leave the view.
On the left side of the camera are more controls where you can set metering
modes, drive modes, various custom function controls, ISO and a memory
set. It's also where you'll find the flash sync terminal (though
the built-in does a pretty good job), the Custom white balance switch
(which I use as a filter control, although I am partial to shooting raw
most of the time) and the "digital effects" controller, which
allows you to do some magic during in-camera image processing that some
might find better left to the more nuanced controls afforded in programs
The controls on the raw viewer and editor are not as comprehensive
as you would find in a dedicated image editor but they allow
you to easily and quickly make adjustments to the image
you might have made in the camera. You can make manual adjustments
to color balance, add a cool or warm "filter,"
decrease or increase saturation and more.
On playback you can use the display to view all the settings you have
made along with a helpful Histogram for checking exposure. The great thing
is that you do get a readout of settings, so if you under or overexposed
you can reference these and then change them without having to guess where
you went astray. You also get the ability to zoom into the image and even
move around it using the jog dial on the back. It can also show you a
helpful battery power level display. I mention that because previous Minoltas
were somewhat notorious for sucking the life out of batteries quickly.
Not so with the A1, where battery efficiency, and especially the use of
a lithium ion battery, seems to have this problem solved. You can also
get an External Battery Pack Kit for significant power extension.
Handling And Focus
Handling the camera is a pleasure, due to its lightweight and very manageable
size. The focal length range is very good, offering as it does the 28mm
equivalent angle of view at the wide side. Adding to this is the fact
that you can tilt both the EVF finder and LCD screen--up to 90º
(right angle) on the EVF and between --20º and +90º on
the LCD. This is one of the most flexible viewing systems around.
The Minolta A1 has one focusing target dead center, which you can use
if you like working with Focus Lock (halfway pressure on the shutter release).
You can also use their (FFP) Flex Focus Point to move the target pretty
much where you want throughout the frame. The FFP turns red to confirm
focus when you partially depress the shutter release.
This image was first made in Minolta raw; using the DiMAGE
Viewer software a touch of warmth was added with a slight
increase in color saturation. You must use the DiMAGE Viewer
to open the Minolta raw files.
Help For Shake
At slow shutter speeds, or when the unit senses a "shaky"
image might be made, it automatically sets up the Minolta Anti-Shake system,
indicated by a "nervous" hand signal on the back of the camera.
The symbol turns blue when Anti-Shake has been activated. You then press
part way down and when the image on the screen has "stabilized"
you complete the exposure with full pressure on the release. It's
fairly ingenious, but if it gives you a yellow glow then the shutter speed
is just too low for it to work.
As you work you can activate a "real time" histogram by hitting
the information ("i") button on the camera. This button can
cycle through various viewing options, from standard to a "live
only" image. You can also get a grid on the screen if you are compositionally
challenged. If you want manual focus you move the autofocus control switch,
and what Minolta calls a "Flex Digital Magnifier" can be used
for critical focusing control with the rear focusing collar on the lens.
Skin tones and nuance of color are very good right out of
the camera without any post-processing required. A slight
touch of fill flash sometimes helps, especially on an overcast
Exposure controls are rampant on the camera and you can choose just about
any mode you're used to working with or desire. I am becoming a
great fan of Program Shift (with whatever overrides are necessary), as
I don't have to shift between AV and TV to change my mind or adjust
to lighting conditions as I work. With this you can change the aperture/shutter
speed combo just by spinning any of the control dials. (By the way, aperture
goes from f/28 at the wide setting to f/11, which is smaller than 35mm
format chips and has a very deep depth of field. Shutter speeds can range
from 30 to 16,000 sec, another very impressive range. You can also use
Bulb if for some reason 30 sec is not long enough, but it's hard
to imagine when it wouldn't be. And by the way, part II; sunset
mode is used to "produce rich, warm sunsets." We guess that
means warm color saturation and slight underexposure.) Flash also has
all the usual modes, with compensation as well.
If you want to try out just about every metering mode under the sun the
A1 can deliver it for you, including multi-segment (up to 300), center-weighted
and spot. White balance sets include a number of auto modes as well as
custom and presets. There is a noise reduction setup that can be turned
on or off--if on it can take up to 30 sec to process an image of
longer than 1 sec exposure, during which no other images can be made,
so be forewarned.
Just as exposure modes are plentiful so are drive modes, including bracketing
(exposure, contrast, saturation etc.) and interval, for both still and
movie modes. The camera can handle up to 2 fps normally, and 2.8 fps if
you're willing to shoot in a slightly smaller file size than maximum.
The color processor in the A1 handled difficult color scenes
very well and delivered all the subtleties of tone in the
bargain. This red-dominant scene might have caused other
color processors fits, but the image is open and color rich.
Color Space Options
You can also choose from among a number of color spaces, including "natural"
(sRGB), vivid (zapped saturation in sRGB), Adobe RGB (extended gamut,
for repro), Embedded Adobe RGB (Adobe RGB embedded in image file), black
and white (desaturated, still an RGB file) and Solarization, a trick better
left to image manipulation software, as is, frankly, the black and white
To keep track of all this you might need a scorecard, but luckily the
A1 provides a memory bank for up to 5 setups, so you can keep and recall
your settings for portraits where you want a bit less contrast, in aperture-priority
mode and warmer color saturation or a specific type of drive mode for
sports. I only wish that memory banks could be named (this is not available
on most and not just lacking on the A1) so you could get to a setup without
having to decipher all the symbols in the bank.
The built-in flash is not as anemic as most, but it isn't a powerhouse
either (tele at ISO 100, for example, max range is about 7 feet). Happily
there's a hot shoe to mount a variety of Maxxum Program flash units
as well as the company's Ring Light and Controller, or you can add
a flash through a sync cord terminal. If you use the sync cord check the
specs on the unit you might be using and be sure the flash unit has less
than 400v. You can do wireless remote with the A1, for those prone to
Exposure control allows you to nuance every subject and
scene. By using exposure lock, I could get just the exposure
I wanted plus saw the exposure previewed in the EVF.
You have many record options with the A1, including raw, TIFF and three
compression levels with JPEG, of which you have three resolution level
choices. The raw file is about 1/2 the size of TIFF, so why shoot TIFF?
Well, because you can only open the raw file in Minolta software (DiMAGE
Viewer), which adds an extra step to your post exposure work. Raw will
not read in direct printers or in most kiosks, or, for that matter, in
iPhoto or my latest version of ACDSee. The extra-fine JPEG is about a
3:1 compression, which is not bad, so some might keep it set at JPEG extra-fine,
which at the highest res level stores at almost 5MB. The raw vs. high-res
JPEG controversy will not be settled here, although we can say with some
assurance that this photographer will not expose many TIFFs in the future.
Just to nudge the argument along a bit the raw files here are exposed
as 12-bit files, which can be converted to 48-bit in the DiMAGE software.
This makes for information rich images that are superior to most digicam
output. And just about every image parameter that can be set in the camera
during exposure can be set for the raw image later in the DiMAGE software,
which makes shooting easier and less decision-laden. To get raw into some
reasonable image-editing software or to have someone see it without having
DiMAGE Viewer it must be converted to TIFF or JPEG (TIFF in that case
is a better bet).
We do know that the A1 has at least a 15MB buffer. This is revealed through
a very handy feature called "copy," which allows you to copy
up to 15MB to the camera, change cards, and then copy the images to the
new card. Those of you who shoot on the road and don't want to haul
around a laptop, or at least keep it in the trunk during shooting, will
appreciate this handy feature. You can actually select particular images
to copy, which is a great way to separate the sleepers from the keepers
and keep the keepers safe on a separate card.
Though we're getting on the long side of this review take my word
that this camera has many more features to cover, all of which deal with
playback, voice recording, movie modes, user preferences, etc. This camera
is a programmable device par excellence. We'll pass on all that
and trust that you'll discover that those who enjoy such things
will not be bored or left with nothing to do with this camera.
How about results? We shot in many different situations in the two weeks
we had to play with the A1 and found it to be capable of producing high
quality images with ease. Once we figured out all the options we played
through them with ease, and the weight of the camera and especially the
very good battery life convinced us that this was a camera that we could
recommend. It's a digicam any photographer can grow to love. The
zoom range of the integral lens is fine for most situations but, of course,
we're as curious as the rest of you about a Maxxum lens-compatible
Minolta digital SLR. We'll all have to just stay tuned.
· Effective Pixels: 5 million
· ISO: 100-800
· Lens: Integral 7.2-50.8mm (28-200mm equivalent)
manual zoom control
· Maximum Aperture: f/2.8-3.5
· Viewing: EVF (electronic viewfinder) and LCD,
both of which can be articulated
· Shutter Speed: 30-1/16,000 sec
· Autofocus: Wide area, spot, flexible
· Metering: Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot
· Exposure Modes: Program (with shift), aperture-
and shutter-priority, manual
· Flash: built-in, Maxxum dedicated hot shoe mount
flashes, flash sync terminal
· Frames Per Second: standard, 2 fps, 2.8 fps at
lower resolution modes
· Bracketing: Exposure, contrast, saturation, filter
· Voice Memo: Yes
· White Balance: Auto, preset, custom
· Formats: JPEG, TIFF<raw
· Power: NP-400 lithium ion
· Weight: 19.8 oz
· Size: 4.6x3.3x4.4"
· Connectivity: USB
· Street Price: $1000