Although autofocus is not silent, its speed and
reliability should satisfy all but the serious sports photographer. The Anti-Shake
system is even more effective. Sony indicates that it provides a 2-3.5 shutter
speed advantage over non-stabilized cameras/lenses. During testing with the
18-70mm zoom at 50mm (75mm equivalent), I went way beyond Sony's recommendation
starting with 1/2 sec exposures. Roughly half of my shots were acceptably sharp,
adequate for nice 5x7" prints. Switching to a 1/4 sec shutter speed produced
a noticeable improvement: many of my images were adequately sharp for making
very good 8.5x11" prints.
saturation is excessive for certain types of subjects but most photographers
and their friends will appreciate the rich, bold vibrant effect.
Naturally, higher or lower saturation levels can also be selected,
in camera or in raw converter software. ("Normal" Saturation
level; JPEG capture; Adobe RGB color space.)
Image Quality Issues
Raw Capture mode is available for serious photographers who desire to process
their images post-capture. At the camera's Normal setting for sharpness,
contrast, and color saturation, the A100 produced images with high levels of
all three aspects. Hues and tones are vibrant, although reds are sometimes excessively
rich, producing a loss of fine detail. That's easy to prevent by setting
a lower in camera saturation level. Automatic White Balance (WB) was quite effective
on sunny days, but in overcast conditions, or under artificial lighting, better
results were possible with one of the many white balance overrides.
The 40-segment evaluative metering system sometimes overexposed mid tones, particularly
in scenes that included a dark area. In order to maintain highlight detail,
I often set a -1/3 exposure compensation level. The Dynamic Range Optimizer
(DRO) feature was quite effective in ultrahigh contrast situations, lightening
shadow areas without blowing out the highlights.
In full resolution JPEG Fine images, overall quality is superlative, especially
at ISO 100. The camera uses a high compression ratio but JPEG artifacts are
well controlled. After optimizing my technically best photos for printing with
Photoshop CS2, I made many gallery-quality 13x19" inkjet prints--even
from ISO 400 JPEGs--with great definition of intricate details. Switching
to Raw Capture mode produces even better results. Anyone who owns a wide format
printer will probably be able to make much larger prints that will look great
at the typical viewing distances. Raw capture offers another benefit: a wide
range of correction possibilities (without degrading the image) using a converter
Thanks to the new sensor and processor, digital noise is well controlled, making
ISO 400 suitable for all-purpose use in serious photography. At ISO 800, the
noise pattern is fine and tight and colors remain bold. At ISO 1600, however,
the mottled "grain" pattern become problematic and color richness
Evaluation: The Alpha A100 offers a full slate of user-selectable
overrides, and yet, it often produced beautiful JPEGs at the default settings.
Even more impressive JPEG quality would be possible with an Extra Fine option
(lower compression, not available on this camera). Although impossible to describe
in words, or to illustrate on these pages, the Sony JPEGs exhibit a different
"look" than those made with other brands of digital SLRs. The BIONZ
processor automatically applies a higher degree of sharpening and noise reduction
plus some sort of "smoothing" effect. Most of my friends considered
the results to be "perfect" while a couple judged them as "slightly
over-processed." Like me, they preferred the results produced by raw captures
optimized in Adobe Camera Raw (in Photoshop CS2).
used without overrides for color, contrast, sharpness, or white
balance, the Alpha A100 often produces pleasing images with snappy
contrast, pleasing exposure and white balance, vibrant color saturation,
a fairly wide tonal range, and high sharpness. (At f/11 in Aperture
Priority AE mode; JPEG capture at default settings.)
By the end of 2006, Sony plans to market a full line-up of 34 accessories, including
two flash units, 16 Sony lenses (rebadged, restyled Maxxum models) plus three
upscale Carl Zeiss Alpha lenses. Naturally, more will be introduced in the future.
The proposed wide ranging Alpha system--plus compatibility with most Maxxum
accessories--speaks to Sony's intention to become a strong contender
in the digital SLR market.
While the price is a bit high for the "entry-level" category, the
A100 offers excellent value, with features such as a 10-megapixel sensor and
the Super SteadyShot mechanism. Because the latter works with numerous lenses
there's no need to buy more expensive lenses with Image Stabilizers. The
Maxxum 5D and 7D did not achieve great popularity, but the Sony Alpha A100 is
a better camera. In my estimation, it's far more desirable in most aspects:
resolution, high-tech features, processing speed, styling, and convenience of
operation. Whether you already own Maxxum lenses or are looking for a first
digital SLR, this one deserves a spot on your short list of models to consider.
For more information, contact Sony Electronics Inc., 16530 Via Esprillo, Ste.
MZ 7104, San Diego, CA 92127; (877) 865-7669; www.sonystyle.com.
A long-time "Shutterbug" contributor, stock photographer Peter
K. Burian (www.peterkburian.com)
is the author of several books, including "Magic Lantern Guides"
to the Maxxum and Sony digital SLR cameras (Lark Books) as well as "Mastering
Digital Photography and Imaging" (Sybex). He is also a digital photography
course instructor with BetterPhoto.com.
A new enhancing option developed by Sony engineers, the Dynamic Range Optimizer
(DRO) is provided by the BIONZ Image Processing Engine. According to Sony, "DRO
assures perfectly exposed pictures, especially when shooting high-contrast or
strongly backlit scenes that can lead to loss of highlight and shadow detail."
Similar features--designed for exactly the same types of lighting conditions--are
available in some high-end HP Photosmart digicams and Nikon Coolpix models.
Hewlett-Packard employs Adaptive Lighting, a process that takes about 10 seconds.
This feature increases gain to generate an image with lightened shadows for
greater detail. It often works well but at the High level, but the images look
grainy and less natural.
Nikon's D-Lighting feature is similar in concept but it's selected
after photos are taken, during viewing in Playback mode. The processing engine
then generates a copy of the image; with the latest Coolpix models, that takes
about 6 seconds. During processing, dark areas are lightened to reveal more
shadow detail; that usually improves images, but digital noise does become more
Sony Technology: This company's first dynamic range enhancing feature
is available in the 10-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-R1 camera with built-in zoom
lens. Called Advanced Gradation Control System or AGCS, it's one of the
Contrast control options. When selected (before taking a photo), the processing
engine alters the tonal scale to minimize loss of highlight and shadow detail
by setting the appropriate gamma curve. During tests of the DSC-R1 for the May
2006 issue, I found that AGCS produced no visible effect in many high-contrast
lighting situations and only a minimal improvement in others.
More sophisticated than AGCS, the newer DRO feature automatically adjusts gamma
curve and exposure levels for more natural, evenly-exposed pictures under such
"difficult" lighting conditions. When Standard mode (D-R) is used,
DRO analyzes the scene and the processor instantly adjusts the entire image,
lightening all dark tones. The Advanced mode (D-R+) evaluates 1200 individual
segments and adjusts brightness only in specific areas of an image, as a Photoshop
expert might do with the dodging and burning tools. Apparently, the Advanced
option takes about 0.7 seconds for the extra processing, but I did not notice
any slowdown or delay after shooting a series of photos.
Evaluation: During extensive testing in high-contrast lighting, the effect of
DRO varied from subtle to obvious. In
scenes including both dark and ultra-bright areas, D-R mode improved shadow
detail but produced slightly more digital noise
in the lightened areas. In the same situation, D-R+ mode provided a more obvious
improvement of the overall look of an image, though not as impressive as in
the samples shown by Sony. Note, too, that neither mode provided much improvement
in highlight detail and that D-R+ produced more obvious digital noise. While
DRO can improve results, the drawback is that the images look over-processed:
not as natural as they should. Granted, the same effect can occur with inexpert
use of the hadow/Highlight utility in Photoshop.
The Bottom Line: Sony provided DRO as a quick method for making brighter photos
in conditions such as backlighting. It was not intended as an alternative to
the skillful use of advanced utilities in imaging software that provide far
more control over the final results. On the other hand, many digital SLR buyers
do not have the time or the experience to produce the most effective--or
the most natural looking--images using "complicated" techniques.
Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer will probably be appreciated by many Alpha