its advanced micro-technology, the A1 had considerable difficulty
focusing and responding quickly enough under these very
low-light levels in a rainforest exhibit. I was surprised
to get this picture, captured using an external flash.
The DiMAGE A1 ($1249 MSRP,
$999 street) was at the ready, with the 7x zoom lens extended all the
way out (200mm), the macro switch engaged. Unfortunately, macro is not
continuous, so it's either this or set the lens at the widest position
(28mm), which would put me nose to proboscis, a situation sure to make
one of us uncomfortable. (But you have to love this electro-mechanical
zoom! Sure makes zooming quick and positive--albeit requiring two
hands.) I had no qualms about using flash--and have done so many
times before with hymenopterans (bees and wasps), but I'd planned
to use burst mode, at 2 fps, and I thought recycling on the built-in flash
would have slowed things down. I later learned that would not be the case.
The swans swam very close by. Their body tonality apparently
contributed to a focusing problem, although I did manage
a few good shots. Cropped, with Auto Color adjustment in
Right away, as soon as Continuous
AF is engaged, you notice the cursor/cross hairs changing to green. This
also disengages the option to switch between wide field and spot AF, an
option available with single AF mode. I tend to shy away from wide field
AF, because it always manages to lock in on the wrong thing, at least
from my experience with this camera. So I normally opted for spot AF when
not in Continuous focusing mode.
Move this same switch over further and you encounter full manual focus.
But before you go there, I should point out that a menu option lets you
employ the manual focus ring to override autofocus. I reserve full manual
for still life, with the camera on a tripod. The electronic viewfinder,
I should add, has enough contrast and clarity to allow you to manually
focus with confidence, under normal light levels.
Now, you may be asking, why
not use the high-speed Continuous mode, which delivers 2.8 fps capture?
Because the tradeoff is that focusing would be locked in after the first
exposure. Moreover, the screen freezes during the sequence, so that there
is no longer a live image. And given a subject continually moving from
one plane of focus to another, I opted to slow things down to 2 fps, watch
the action unfolding, and shoot for pictures as sharply focused as possible.
Not Quite A Shaky Situation
One more thing. The DiMAGE A1 offers image stabilization ("Anti-shake
System," in Minolta parlance). It was difficult to say with any
certainty that this feature actually helped. I imagine it did. The only
problem is that image stabilization correlates to light levels, dropping
out when the lighting is too low--exactly when it's needed
most. So, after a while, I stopped paying attention to the viewfinder
indicator and decided to concentrate solely on good camera handling technique
to leverage my chances at sharp pictures.
So, there we were, with me hand holding the A1 (not to be confused with
an old Canon SLR of the same name, or a steak sauce)--and the bee,
feeding on nectar. I could take either of two tacks: Focus on a flower
and wait for the bee to arrive, then ease up on the shutter button and
again press down partway with the bee in my cross hairs, or try to track
a bee moving from flower to flower.
Fortunately, the flowers were clumped fairly tightly, so that following
one insect from blossom to blossom was not entirely out of the question.
But it made more sense to wait by one bloom, and when the bee arrived,
set the process in motion. Then as it moved about on the flower, and even
when it took off and alighted on a neighboring bloom, I could follow it.
Admittedly, I wasn't successful with every attempt, and perhaps
critical focus was not achieved (defining critical focus as the bee's
eyes). Still, the results were largely acceptable, enough to translate
into a success. It worked with daylight, and with the built-in flash as
well. Shooting with the built-in flash meant removing the lens shade (since
it obstructed the light).
Moving On To Mating Grasshoppers
Two little known facts of life: First, mating insects do not stand still--when
observed, anyway. Two, they remain together for quite a while, so, unless
they move out of range or behind some leaf clutter, you stand a good chance
of capturing them. Because of the movement, I was very happy to have the
DiMAGE A1 with me, again relying on auto-tracking and predictive focus.
This time, I employed the camera's built-in flash for most shots
(lots of shade), with the same macro settings. For flash exposures, the
camera remained in aperture-priority mode, stopped down to (or near) minimum
aperture, for enhanced depth of field.
For this series, I opted for single-shot drive mode, since I was not especially
interested in capturing a sequence. Once I had a mating pair in focus,
I let the camera do its thing. I watched the Continuing AF cross hairs
track the line of the insects as they moved. The A1's 3D Predictive
Focus certainly alleviated any concerns I might have had with regard to
Moments later--keep in mind that this was late in the day--I'd
discovered an interesting moth fluttering about and was determined to
capture it digitally. Here I had to remove the camera from my eye and
work with the external monitor. Holding the strap out of the way, I lowered
the camera, pressed the shutter button, and waited to hear the audible
focus-lock signal, then took the picture. I exposed each frame as the
camera came progressively closer to the lepidopteran. Good thing, too.
I'd only managed a handful of exposures before someone walked past
and frightened it off, so that it disappeared from sight.
At The Zoo
It was now time to turn my attention to somewhat larger subjects, so I
headed for New York City's Central Park Zoo. I brought along the
Maxxum Flash 5600HS(D) and mounted it atop the hot shoe after entering
the tropical rainforest building. Under these low-light levels, the camera's
focusing system was fidgety, often having a problem locking onto the animals.
Also, in burst mode, the EVF failed to remain in enhanced mode (where
it automatically brightens to compensate for the darkness) after the first
frame, making it nearly impossible to track my subjects. Clearly the DiMAGE
A1 does not shine in dimly lit environments.
I fared much better with the snow monkeys and swans outdoors--both
in one exhibit. Here the camera was set to standard burst mode. The black
and white water fowl, at one point or another, presented a small focusing
problem at close range (tonality was the apparent culprit). On the other
hand, even after adding 2x digital zoom, with the lens stretched to the
max, I was treated to several very touching moments of the mother simian
and her baby off in the distance.
Give a baby a toy and just wait for things to happen, especially
when it's one of her favorites. Apparently, at the
moment of exposure, the camera locked on to the phone (or
her hand), since that is in sharper focus. The Maxxum flash
was aimed at the ceiling for a softer light that better
suited a 1 year old.
The DiMAGE A1: 3D
Predictive Focus And People
The Minolta DiMAGE A1 proved itself a capable camera in the photo studio
as well. With the camera in manual exposure mode, I photographed two models,
lighting with Interfit flat panel strobes (from Paterson Photographic,
www.patersonphotographic.com). I employed one cyberFLASH 300 ws studio
flat panel strobe and one eFLASH battery-operated unit. These lights produce
a soft, flattering light. One light was hooked up to the camera, by way
of the standard sync socket on the body, with the other light triggered
via the built-in photocell. Since the camera was handheld, I relied on
predictive focus and didn't have to worry that any movement by me
or the model would result in a focusing error.
Exposure control was perhaps a little unconventional. The A1 stops down
only as far as f/11. That was not enough to prevent overexposure with
these lights positioned as close as they were (necessary for a maximum
soft lighting effect). However, I'd soon discovered that I could
use higher shutter speeds (as if engaging high-speed sync mode on some
35mm SLRs) to ensure a proper exposure.
When it came to photographing a belly dancer in a supper club, the A1
was disappointing. I used an external Maxxum flash with the dancer, with
the camera in program mode. When confronted with a subject in constant
motion under very subdued lighting, I found I had to release the shutter
well in advance and hope for the best.
Finally, at a friend's home, I focused on a 1-year-old in her high
chair, both playing with a toy phone and being fed. The lighting here
was considerably brighter than in the club, but flash was still necessary--bounce
flash, in this case. I aimed the DiMAGE A1 in the direction of the baby's
face, and awaited the right moment. Sometimes the toy grabbed the focusing
sensor's attention, but not to the point of spoiling the shot.