The Sony Alpha 900

The Sony Alpha 900

What Does 24 Megapixels Look Like, and Why Would You Need It?

by George Schaub

First off, you won't see any images with this piece. The reason is that when I first got to shoot with the camera in August, Sony made me sign a blood oath that no images from the preproduction sample could be published. Understandable, I guess, as they wanted to be sure to tweak any problems before the camera hit the street, and wanted to be sure that I, and the rest of the press given this initial glimpse of the camera, wouldn't make any judgments prior to their final adjustments, if any. And, there was no Raw converter available, from Sony or anyone else, so all I got to examine were my JPEGs. Indeed, showing you examples in this venue would result in images on your monitor that for all intents and purposes would not look much different than those produced by a good 8 megapixel camera. Rest assured that by the time you read this we will have a release sample in test, and will publish our findings in Shutterbug as soon as those tests are done. And specs for the camera are available on our News Desk.

So why, you might ask, bother writing about it at all? The topic for me here is not dissecting image results, which were quite exciting, but the size of the files the camera produces. At 24+ megapixels, and near 70MB files (opened) per frame, I thought it brought up what's come to be called the megapixel horserace, and how we have come to think about that count as a measure of digital camera advancement. In addition, this is a so-called full-frame camera, which means image quality is supposed to be superior to any produced by smaller sensor size D-SLRs. In short, the Alpha 900 has it all, if you buy into the full-frame sensor/major megapixel argument.

Some folks have posited that this is the opening salvo in the next phase of the horserace, that we will eventually see 40MP sensors in the D-SLR format. In short, the advancements in image processing will break the boundaries, again, of what we might have considered the limits of resolution on certain size sensors in the past. Now that we have digicams at 12 megapixels, the expectation that D-SLRs have to make the next leap are legion. After all, we saw a similar evolution in film, where ISO 400 was once a true dog of a film, and then became the "universal" ISO, soon to be followed by even higher ISO emulsions that always seemed to match the lower ISO results of the recent past. And full-frame sensors are now routinely delivering ISO settings that would previously make images look as if they were made in a color-fractured blizzard of noise. Having shot with the Alpha 900 at ISO 2500 I can attest to the fact that the image processor does yeoman duty on noise reduction, as well as contrast controls that apply gain into shadows and tame highlights in difficult ambient lighting conditions.

One thing a near 70MB file gives you is the ability to crop into the frame, which you may or may not need to do, but even if you drop a few dozen MB you still can get a pretty large print from the file. And when you go to a 13x19 on a crop you still can print out at 300dpi, which some purists insist is the right way to go. But a full file will get you a 20x24 with no sweat, for those who go that large. In other words, this might be the D-SLR that convinces everyone that shooting and scanning medium format film is no longer the way to ultimate image quality. And it might become the favorite of the portrait and wedding crowd. Oddly, Sony does not envision this camera as a "pro" model, but one for enthusiasts and advanced photographers seeking to get the most from their luscious Carl Zeiss lenses. Just what a Sony pro model might offer above and beyond the 900 is hard to imagine, at least at this point.

If you shoot with this camera and want to work in Raw+JPEG you better get yourself some big old memory cards (CF, still) and make sure you have some back-up drives at the ready, as those size files really do take up space. And if you do some intense Photoshopping and add Layers and such, which increase file size, you better have the RAM to back it up. In other words, working with a camera that produces files this size means you might have to upgrade your image-editing setup to handle the load, or be prepared to while away the time while images get the treatment. Yes, big files can be useful to some, but to others it will mean the daunting task of rethinking the old workflow, and just what hardware and software you might need to do the job.

In the end, you have to ask yourself just how large you need those image files, and just what a near 70MB opened file will do for you, your prints and your vision. True, the Sony A900 offers more than just big image files and all that you can do with them. But there are implications to stepping up in size, ones you might not think about in the rush to have the biggest sensor on the block. While I will defer any final conclusions about image quality until I get the full Raw converter and put the camera to the test, I can only say that the A900 is a breakthrough camera that pushes high ISO quality, and certainly image size, to new limits.