New Sigma SA9, SA7, And EF 500 Super Flash

The very affordable SA-7 does not include all of the automatic features of some entry-level SLRs like subject-oriented Program modes. Even so, it's ideal for novices who want simplicity of operation but also demand advanced capabilities that will be necessary once they advance to more serious photography. (A 28-70mm f/2.8 EX zoom; f/11; depth of field preview; Manual mode and center-weighted metering, with exposure increased by a stop from metered value; B+W polarizer; Velvia.)
Photos © 2001, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Still the only independent lens maker to design and produce 35mm SLR cameras, Sigma continues developing and upgrading their line. Replacing the previous SA-5, two new models were recently introduced. The SA-9 and the SA-7 are very similar in appearance, controls, and capabilities; the primary advantages of the SA-9 include higher shutter speeds and faster film advance. I tested the latter this past summer, often using the new EF 500 Super flash unit, while shooting travel stock images of people, places, and events.

Features And Capabilities
In comparison to the SA-5, the most notable new SA-9 features include updated algorithms that provide more reliable autofocus performance. A higher 1/8000 sec (vs. 1/4000 sec) top shutter speed allows for stop-action photography with high-speed film, even at an Indy car race, for example. The built-in flash unit offers more power for greater effective reach, with its Guide Number of 40 in ft at ISO 100 (vs. a GN of 36). Near and far-sighted photographers will appreciate the new eyepiece diopter adjustment because it will allow some to shoot without the need for their eyeglasses. Finally, the higher top sync speed of 1/180 sec (vs. 1/125 sec) offers two advantages: it increases the odds of a sharp flash exposure with a moving subject and allows wider apertures to be used in close-ups for shallower depth of field.

Note that the new SA-7 differs in a few respects from the SA-9, as detailed in our Technical Specifications section. Otherwise, all of my comments about the SA-9--with or without the new EF 500 Super flash unit--apply equally to both cameras. Both are loaded with every important capability as noted in the Specs chart. Those that are most worth noting include reflex mirror lockup for vibration-free images in high magnification photography, depth of field preview, and support for some advanced flash modes. I missed only a few features: shutter speed display in the external LCD panel (it's provided in the viewfinder only), LCD panel illumination in low-light conditions, and a "film leader out after rewind" setting.

Camera Overview
This handsome, compact all-black body features oversized controls that most experienced photographers will appreciate. In addition to the usual Command dial for selecting film advance rates, AE Bracketing, and mirror lockup, the new cameras sport a large, conventional shutter speed knob. It's used in Manual and in Shutter Priority AE mode instead of an electronic input dial as with the older SA-5. Consequently, there's only a single input dial, and it's now around the shutter release button for immediate access with your index finger.

The designers placed the input dial horizontally while most cameras offer a dial in a vertical orientation. I do prefer the latter because it seems easier and more convenient to rotate but this is a subjective judgment. I do wish that Sigma had left the ISO override control on the large command dial as with the SA-5; it was very quick to access. With the new cameras, you must press the [FUNC] button a few times to access this feature. However, there was never a need to press two buttons simultaneously while rotating an input dial, as with some cameras.

There's also a new mechanical switch for selecting the operating modes (P, A, S, M) so these are no longer accessed with the command dial. Naturally, there are a few electronic buttons, well marked as to their purpose with common icons and abbreviations. These are used to select AE Lock, exposure compensation, autofocus mode, and various functions (flash modes, ISO, beeper off). The depth of field preview button is on the left front of the camera; it would be more readily accessible if it were on the right front, next to the handgrip.

The Sigma SA-9 is user-friendly, offers all the capabilities that most of us need, and includes a moderately fast 3 fps film advance. Both experienced photographers and novices will find it easy to achieve the intended effect with most subject types. (A 100-300mm f/4 APO EX HSM zoom; Continuous AF and film advance; Program mode and evaluative metering; Provia 100F.)

Evaluation: This is one of those cameras that you can pick up, examine for a few minutes and quickly begin shooting, without reading the very short (52 page) instruction manual. If you have used a high tech SLR camera recently, you'll find 80 percent of the capabilities to be intuitive. You'll find most operating sequences to be highly simple, logical, and convenient. There are no Custom Functions, no multiple autofocus sensors or complicated modes to select, and few features that call for a study of the manual.

Like several manufacturers, Sigma now offers some old-style knobs and switches instead of a lot of small buttons and electronic dials. I'm not sure these are always as quick to operate. For example, I find it much quicker to select shutter speeds with an electronic dial--with the camera at eye level--instead of using a large knob that's not as convenient to manipulate. The good news is that you can pick up the camera and start shooting almost immediately. Only some of the more advanced accessory flash capabilities offer a moderately steep learning curve. If the functions selected with the [FUNC] button were moved to the Command dial, the camera would be even quicker to operate.

As a camera for photo enthusiasts, either SA model should prove to be adequately rugged with its metal lens mount, film pressure plate, and the glass-fiber reinforced polycarbonate components. (Crash helmets are made of a similar material.) Heavier cameras do balance better with hefty f/2.8 or f/4 pro EX lenses that I used, but most photographers today prefer the lighter zooms. Those with large hands will certainly prefer the SA-9, while others will want the more compact SA-7.

Field Testing The SA-9
During mountain bike races, a War of 1812 re-enactment, motorcycle show-and-shine events, for portraits, and in general travel photography, the SA-9 performed as expected. Unlike some cameras today, its autofocus system does not include multiple focus detection points for quick shooting with off-center subjects. However, the single cross-hatched sensor certainly proved reliable, quick to focus in moderate and bright light, and highly accurate. Sigma warns that Continuous AF may not work well with "a subject that moves at high speed" but it was able to track people walking and cyclists moving at a normal pace. During the fast action of a race, with subjects moving erratically, it was occasionally successful in tracking their progress.

The eight-segment evaluative metering system was as successful as those of comparably priced cameras of other brands. As usual, I found that light-toned subjects and backlighting called for some + exposure compensation. In contrasty lighting with slide film, I found that bracketing toward overexposure produced the best results. With color print film, I would permanently set a +0.5 EV factor because such film offers the best results when it's not underexposed. Then, some 90 percent of my negatives would make for excellent prints.

The built-in flash unit offers the usual redeye reduction and slow-sync (for long exposures) feature as well as automatic daylight-balanced fill flash in bright conditions. It can be used in all camera operating modes and allows the photographer to select a desired aperture or sync speed for controlling depth of field or the depiction of motion. The small tube provides limited range of course, and the light is blocked by large lenses and lens hoods. Consequently, I generally used the new EF 500 Super accessory flash, which proved to be highly versatile. However, with more compact lenses and ISO 400 or 800 film, the built-in flash would certainly be useful indoors and out.

Thanks to the semiautomatic modes, fully automatic Program mode with shift feature, other metering options, easily accessed overrides, and the Manual mode, the camera is highly versatile. The AF system is not designed for serious sports photography. While some competing cameras have a much longer Specs list, many are also a lot more complicated to operate and are often more expensive. Both the SA-9 and SA-7 are very user-friendly and surprisingly affordable; they should appeal especially to those moving up from an entry-level SLR. Because the SA-7 costs about $150 less (street price) than the SA-9, it will probably be far more popular; most SA-7 buyers will also spring for the affordable EF 500 ST flash unit. However, I would recommend the SA-9 (and the EF 500 Super) for those who want to develop their skills or are becoming more serious about photography. On the other hand, both cameras offer advanced capabilities such as depth of field preview and reflex mirror lockup, and both support the advanced flash modes of the EF 500 Super. Add some of the many fine Sigma lenses and the optional electronic remote controller, and the system should satisfy most needs for years to come.

Even today, many flash units do not offer a flash exposure compensation control, although this feature can be highly useful. With the EF 500 Super, I used it often, sometimes combined with ambient light exposure compensation to control both subject and background brightness. (Program mode; -0.5 flash exposure compensation and +0.5 exposure compensation; 28-70mm f/2.8 EX zoom; Elite Chrome 100 at EI 200.)

Accessory EF 500 Super Flash Unit
The latest of the high-end Sigma flash units, the EF 500 Super is among the most full featured of the affordable models made by independent manufacturers. This is a large but lightweight unit with full information LCD data panel, intended to compete with the camera maker's flash units. Although I have used it only with the SA-9, it's available for most brands of autofocus SLRs. Actual capabilities vary depending on the brand/model of the camera; Sigma particularly emphasizes increased compatibility with new high tech SLRs. Models intended for Nikon support the cameras' 3D multi-sensor balanced fill flash function and the models for Canon support E-TTL pre-flash with the latest EOS cameras. For additional specifics on compatibility with your SLR visit www.sigma-photo.com or check with a Sigma dealer.

The EF 500 Super includes a motorized zoom head that adjusts automatically for focal lengths from 28-105mm. With its built-in wide angle adapter panel, it's suitable for use with lenses as short as 17mm. Naturally, you'll find tilt and swivel capability, including downward tilt for subjects that are very close to the camera. Familiar operating modes include TTL and fully Manual with full and reduced power settings. However, it also offers a multimode that generates up to 100 flashes during a single exposure at a frequency from 1-199Hz, for motion studies.

More importantly, perhaps, it will support high-speed flash sync with certain brands and models of cameras, including the SA series. This allows for off-camera flash without the hassle or expense of a connecting cord but at a top sync speed of only 1/60 sec. The remote EF 500 Super is triggered by the light from the built-in flash; thanks to TTL metering, no calculations are required for accurate exposure.

One or more remote EF 500 Super flash units can also be used in non-TTL slave flash mode with most cameras; the remote flash is triggered by any on-camera flash unit. This process is not as quick, simple, or quite as automatic but experienced photographers who read the instructions will have no difficulty producing advanced lighting effects.

In its FP Flash mode, the unit will allow for flash photography at sync speeds much higher than usual, with cameras that support this feature. However, you must then set both the camera and flash to the Manual mode. Then, you must make some calculations as to the correct aperture to set on the camera, guided by data on the LCD panel of the flash unit. This is all well explained in the instruction manual, but may be too complicated for many owners. Think of this as an advanced feature for use when you have time to experiment.

Other useful features (with many cameras) include second curtain sync (so light trails follow the subject instead of preceding it), redeye reduction mode (pre-flash), and modeling flash. The latter fires a burst at the touch of a button so you can preview the flash effect; because the burst is so short you won't have much time to evaluate the lighting but with some experience, modeling flash can be useful. In my estimation, most photographers will find the flash exposure compensation control most valuable. This is great for reducing flash output on sunny days, for extremely subtle fill flash, even gentler than the camera provides in automatic fill flash. It's also useful in strong backlighting; for example, set a +1 or +1.5 EV factor to help prevent underexposure with portrait subjects against an extremely bright background. For more advanced effects, set flash exposure compensation for the subject and ambient light exposure compensation (on the camera) to control background brightness.

Sigma also offers a more affordable flash unit, the EF 500 ST, with some of the same basic capabilities as the Super model. This is a less advanced model with the same Guide Number and zoom head, but without features such as multi-pulse, wireless, or high-speed sync. Contact Sigma or visit their web site for additional information. Both models set fairly long shutter speeds in Aperture Priority AE mode in low light, useful for slow-sync effects; switch to other modes for faster sync speeds to avoid image blur from camera or subject movement. In the camera's Manual mode, you can set various combinations of aperture/shutter speed, guided by data provided in the camera's viewfinder, warning of possible over or underexposure.

Evaluation: The EF 500 Super includes the capabilities to satisfy the most advanced and experienced photographer, but it can also serve as a simple, TTL auto flash that provides pleasing results. A fully automatic high-speed sync mode would certainly make it more desirable, but this feature is not something that we use frequently in any event. Especially with the SA-9--and other brands of cameras with 1/180 sec or faster flash sync speed--there's no major need for higher speeds.

While this model offers some advanced options, I suspect that most owners will use it in the standard TTL mode perhaps with some flash exposure compensation. But do try using it off-camera in wireless TTL remote mode. I found that it's easy to get good exposures as long as the subject is within 16 ft of the flash unit. I often used this capability, generally holding the flash above and to the side of the subject, for a natural lighting effect. Indoors, hold the remote flash as high as possible in people photography; shadows will fall below the subjects and not on the wall behind them. This can significantly improve flash photographs.

Extensive testing of the many flash capabilities will be required but my preliminary conclusion is this: When used with a camera that supports all of its capabilities, the EF 500 Super offers a lot of user control over subject lighting. Granted, some of the many flash options are rather complicated, and call for a thorough reading of the instructions plus lots of practice. However, this unit can also be simple to use in TTL mode and provides predictable results automatically without any calculations or fussing.

For more information, contact Sigma Corporation of America at (631) 585-1144 or www.sigma-photo.com.

Technical Specifications
Sigma SA-9

Type: 35mm autofocus SLR
Useable Lenses: Sigma SA bayonet mount AF
Viewfinder: Fixed mirror prism; 92 percent field of view; 0.70x magnification; -1.5 to +1.5 diopter adjustment for eyepiece; full information data panel
Operating Modes: Program with shift feature, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority AE, metered Manual
Shutter: Electronically controlled, vertical-run focal plane shutter; speeds from 1/8000 to 30 sec in P and A mode; 1/8000 to 1 sec in M and S mode; top flash sync speed 1/180 sec
Focusing System: Phase-matching autofocus, with central cross-hatched AF sensor; working range, -1 EV to +18 EV; focus assist lamp; single shot AF with focus lock and predictive/continuous AF; manual focus
Exposure Control: Choice of eight-segment evaluative, heavily center-weighted and standard center-weighted; AE Lock, exposure compensation, and AE bracketing
Flash: Built-in retractable TTL flash, with coverage for 28mm and longer lenses; redeye reduction selectable; automatic daylight-balanced and slow sync; GN 40 (ISO 100/ft); accessory flash via hot shoe or in wireless remote TTL mode with certain models
Film Handling: Motorized load, wind, and rewind; single and continuous advance to 3 fps; automatic (DX) film speed setting and ISO override; mid roll rewind possible
Other: Depth of field preview; multiple exposure control; date imprinting back included; reflex mirror pre-lock; external LCD panel; compatible with wireless remote control RS-21 accessory; self-timer
Power Source: One lithium 2CR5 battery
Dimensions: 5.6x3.8x2.7"
Weight: 15.3 oz plus batteries
Note: Sigma SA-7 Specs are identical except for the following: top shutter speed 1/2000 sec, top sync speed 1/90 sec, film transport speed 1.5 fps; date back not included; power source: two CR2 lithium batteries; dimensions: 5.2x3.6x2.7"; weight: 13.9 oz

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