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DCRP Review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A100
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: June 5, 2006
Last Updated: January 17, 2008
This review has been completed using a production-level DSLR-A100. All product photos have been reshot, and sample photos are from the production model.
The Sony Alpha (α) DSLR-A100 is the first digital SLR for the Japanese consumer electronics giant. If it looks like the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D and 7D, that's no coincidence: Sony bought KM's camera business in 2005.
The A100 shares the same basic design as the 5D and 7D, which includes the lens mount and CCD-based image stabilizer. So what's new on the A100, besides the Sony label? Here's a brief list:
So what about lenses? Sony is rebranding many popular Konica Minolta lenses, including the 18 - 70 mm model that you see in the product photos here. In addition, they're working with Carl Zeiss to produce high-end lenses, and you can expect three of them in the near future (16 - 80, 85, and 135 mm).
The DSLR-A100 is priced at $900 for the body only, and $1000 with the 18-70 lens.
How does the A100 compare to the tough D-SLR competition? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
As is the case with most D-SLRs, there are two "kits" available for the A100: one with a lens, and one without. Here's what's in each:
As is the case with all digital SLRs, no memory card is included, so you'll need to buy one of those before you can start taking pictures. The A100 uses CompactFlash cards (including the Microdrive), and I'd suggest a 1GB card as a good starter size. A high speed card is always a good idea when you're using a digital SLR.
If you've got some Memory Stick Duo cards laying around then you can use those too. Not because there's an MS Duo slot in the camera, though. Instead you can use the bundled adapter which puts your MS Duo card into a CompactFlash card, which then goes into the camera.
One change from the two Minolta D-SLRs is in the battery department. Not surprisingly, Sony wants you to buy their batteries, so that's what you'll use in the A100. The included battery is known as the NP-FM55H, which packs a whopping 11.5 Wh into its plastic shell. That translates into 750 shots per charge (per the CIPA standard), which is pretty good for a D-SLR (and noticeably better than the 5D and 7D). Unfortunately, most camera manufacturers don't release battery life information for their D-SLRs, so it's nearly impossible to compare battery life.
The usual negatives about proprietary batteries apply here. For one, they're expensive -- an extra FM55 battery will set you back a whopping $55. Secondly, if you ever run out of juice, you can't just pop in regular batteries like you can on a AA-based camera. There are just a small handful of D-SLRs that let you use AA batteries, and most of those require a special adapter to do so.
It's worth mentioning that the A100 doesn't give you a minute-by-minute countdown of battery life like most of Sony's fixed-lens cameras.
When it's time to recharge the battery, just pop it into the included external charger. It takes about 175 minutes for a normal charge, and 235 minutes for a full charge. This isn't one of those handy "plug it right into the wall" chargers -- you must use a power cable.
Much to my dismay, Sony will not be offering a battery grip for the A100.
Okay, now let's talk about accessories, starting with lenses. If a lens worked on the Maxxum 5D or 7D then it'll work here too. If you have an older Minolta lens then you'll want to check with Sony support to see if it works. Sony will be offering 19 lenses with the A100 initially, including three with the Carl Zeiss label. If there's a type of lens you want, it probably exists. And, since the A100 has CCD-based image stabilization, there's no need to buy special lenses to get this useful feature.
Next up are flashes. Like the Maxxum cameras, the hot shoe on the A100 is proprietary, so you can't just attach any old external flash. Sony will be offering two flashes, the HVL-F36AM ($250) and the HVL-F56AM ($350), and I assume that other Minolta flashes will work too. There is also an off-shoe adapter which uses a proprietary flash sync cable.
Other accessories include a wired remote ($53), an angle finder and various viewfinder add-ons, an external dual battery charger / AC adapter (for a whopping $130), and the ubiquitous camera cases.
Picture Motion Browser for Windows
Sony includes two software packages with the DSLR-A100. The first product is called Picture Motion Browser, and it looks exactly the same as another Sony product called Cyber-shot Viewer. The PMB software is for Windows only, so Mac users will have to find something else to use for downloading photos from the camera (iPhoto works just fine).
On the main screen of PMB you'll get the usual thumbnail view. You can view photos by folder or by date (using a calendar interface), with a third list view (showing shooting details) also available. On this screen you can rotate, print, and e-mail images, as well as create slideshows of them.
Picture Motion Browser for Windows
Double-clicking on any thumbnail brings you to the edit screen. This adds some basic photo editing tools such as redeye reduction, brightness/contrast/saturation adjustment, and trimming. An auto adjustment feature is also available.
While the edit screen can display your RAW images, it won't actually let you edit their properties. For that you'll want to use...
Image Data Converter SR for Mac OS X
... Image Data Converter SR! This software is for both Mac and Windows, and the program looks the same on both platforms. Like with PMB, the main screen has a photo browser, which can be viewed as thumbnails alone, or with shooting data (shown above).
Image Data Converter SR for Mac OS X
Open up one of the thumbnails and you'll get the edit screen. Here you can adjust virtually every RAW property you can think of, from white balance to exposure to sharpness and color. If you're the type that likes playing with tone curves, then you won't be disappointed with IDC SR. Other features include noise reduction, image info (which shows every EXIF header imaginable), and picture effects (which let you turn an image into black & white and more).
So what's the deal with RAW, anyway? RAW images contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's CCD. In order to convert this data into more usable formats you must first process the data on your computer, which is where Image Data Converter comes in. Software like IDC lets you adjust all of the properties I mentioned above (and more) without reducing the quality of the image. It's almost like you get a second chance to take a photo: so if you botched the white balance, you can change it using RAW conversion software. Do note that RAW images are a lot larger than their JPEG equivalents, so they take up quite a bit of space on your memory card.
Like with their Cyber-shot cameras, Sony's manuals come in two parts. First you'll get a fold out "Read This First" guide, which covers the basics. When you're ready for more you'll want to open up the User's Guide, which covers everything in detail. It's fairly easy to follow, though there is quite a bit of small print.
Look and Feel
If you've seen the Maxxum 5D then you've basically seen the DSLR-A100. It's a good-sized camera with a sturdy plastic shell over a metal frame. The camera is easy to hold, with a substantial right hand grip, and the important controls are within easy reach of your fingers. The A100 has quite a few buttons and dials, which can be intimidating to new users.
Here's a look at how the A100 compares to other D-SLRs in terms of size and weight (body only, of course):