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DCRP Review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A700
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 5, 2007
Last Updated: January 17, 2008

Our final review of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 has been completed using a production-level camera. All sample and test photos were taken with this production camera running version 2.0 of the A700 firmware. Please note that the 16 - 80 mm (Zeiss) lens shown in some of the product photos is optional.

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 ($1400) is the second digital SLR from the Japanese electronics giant. This camera was first shown at PMA earlier this year, and had been referred to as the "advanced amateur" model. The camera is a descendant of Konica Minolta's digital SLRs, as Sony bought their assets in 2006. Thus, the A700 has many of the same features that were found on Minolta D-SLRs of days past. These include the Alpha lens mount, hot shoe, sensor-shift image stabilizer, EyeStart AF, and more.

Here are some standout features on the A700:

One feature you won't find on the A700 is live view. Three months ago I don't think anyone would care, but with the introduction of the Canon EOS-40D, Nikon D300, and Panasonic DMC-L10, the A700 seems a bit out-of-place.

How does the A700 perform against this tough competition? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The A700 is available in three kits: one with just the camera body ($1400), another with a 18 - 70 mm lens ($1500), and a third with a 16 - 105 mm lens ($1900). Here's what you'll find in the box for all three of these kits:

The 18 - 70 mm lens in the cheaper kit isn't new -- it was the kit lens for the DSLR-A100. The 16 - 105 mm lens is a new one, and its what I used for all of the sample photos in this review. The 16-105 lens is available separately for $580, if you don't buy to buy the pricey A700P kit right now. Otherwise, you can use most Minolta and all Sony-branded lenses with the A700, with a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio.

Digital SLRs never come with a memory card, so unless you have a CompactFlash or Memory Stick Duo card laying around, you'll need to buy one. The A700 supports both of these formats, and I'd recommend a 2GB card as a good starter size. It's absolutely worth spending the extra bucks for a high speed card, as D-SLRs really takes advantage of them.

The A700 uses the brand spankin' new NP-FM500H lithium-ion battery pack. This battery packs a lot of power, with 11.8 Wh of energy inside its plastic shell. Being what Sony calls an "InfoLithium" battery, the camera is able to tell you exactly how much charge the battery has left. Now, here's a look at how the A700 compares to other D-SLRs in terms of battery life:

Camera Battery life, 50% flash use, live view disabled
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS-40D 800 shots BP-511A
Fuji FinePix S5 Pro 400 shots NP-150
Nikon D80 * 600 shots EN-EL3e
Nikon D300 1000 shots EN-EL3e
Olympus E-3 610 shots BLM-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 450 shots DMW-BLA13
Pentax K10D 480 shots D-LI50
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 750 shots NP-FM55H
Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 650 shots NP-FM500H

* Not officially calculated with CIPA standard, but same methodology used

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The A700's battery life is just a hair above the average for this group. It's numbers are actually 15% worse than the original DSLR-A100 -- usually its the other way around.

I should point out a few issues regarding the proprietary battery used by the A700. First, they're really expensive -- an extra one will set you back at least $55. Second, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery when the rechargeable dies, as you could with an AA-based camera. Some cameras, however, can use AA batteries via their optional battery grips, but the A700 isn't one of them.

Above you can see the A700's optional battery grip, which is known as the VG-C70AM (priced from $315). It replicates quite a few of the buttons found on the back of the camera, including the two command dials, the four-way controller, and the shutter release button. The grip can hold one or two NP-FM500H batteries, allowing for double the battery life.

When it's time to charge the A700's battery, just pop it into the included charger. A typical charge takes around 175 minutes, while a full charge will take a whopping 235 minutes. The charger doesn't plug directly into the wall (which I like) -- you have to attach a power cable.

Sony includes a wireless remote control in the box with the A700. As you can see, it can be used for both taking and viewing your photos. This will come in handy when you're hooked into a HDTV. Speaking of which, in order to take advantage of the camera's HDMI port, you'll need a Mini HDMI to HDMI cable, which is not included.

Being a digital SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the DSLR-A700 supports plenty of accessories. Here's a summary of what's available:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The A700 supports all Konica Minolta and Sony lenses that use the Alpha mount
External flash

HVL-F36AM
HVL-F56AM

From $206
From $309
You'll get more flash power and less chance of redeye with an external flash. These two models fully integrate with the camera.
Macro twin flash kit HVL-MT24AM $500 For taking close-up flash photos
Ring light HVL-RLAM $250 Light up your macro shots
Angle finder FDA-A1AM $160 For looking through the viewfinder from above
Wired remote control RM-S1AM
RM-L1AM

From $53
$60

Basically a shutter release button on a cable. The S1 has a short cable, while the L1's is quite long (5 meters)
Battery grip VG-C70AM From $315 Get double the battery life and a comfortable vertical grip
AC adapter / Dual battery charger AC-VQ900AM From $103 Power your camera without draining your batteries; can also charge two batteries (though not simultaneously)
Mini HDMI cable (5 ft) VMC-15MHD From $25 For connecting to an HDTV; you can find non-Sony cables for less online
LCD protect cover PCK-LH1AM
$12 A polycarbonate cover than snaps over the LCD to protect it from scratches and fingerprints
Soft carrying case LCS-AMLC2 $100 A fitted leather case for camera and one lens
Accessory kit ACC-AMFM11 $100 Includes a canvas camera bag and extra battery
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

A pretty standard selection for a D-SLR, I'd say -- and that's a good thing.


Normal thumbnail view in Picture Motion Browser

Sony includes several software products with the A700. The first one is Picture Motion Browser, and it's for Windows only. PMB can be used for acquiring photos from the camera, organizing them, and performing basic editing tasks.


Calendar view in PMB

Photos can be viewed in the traditional way (first screenshot) or in calendar view (above). Whichever view you're using, you can print photos, e-mail them, or burn them to a CD or DVD. Photos can also be quickly rotated, and a slideshow features is also available.


Edit screen in PMB

Editing options are fairly limited in Picture Motion Browser. Tools include auto enhancement, brightness, saturation, and sharpness adjustment, redeye reduction, and cropping. You can also adjust the tone curve, or print the date on your photo.

While Picture Motion Browser can view RAW files, it can't do anything with them. For that you'll want to fire up one of the following programs.


Image Data Converter SR

Image Data Converter SR 2.0 is your main RAW editing application. It works on both Mac and Windows, and it seemed relatively quick at performing edits. If you can imagine an image property to edit, chances are that IDC can do it. Some of the highlights include D-Range Optimizer adjustment, noise reduction, tone curves, and staples like white balance and exposure. A "version stack" option lets you go back in time through your various adjustments. Users can also save processing formulas, which can be applied to other images with the click of your mouse. Finally, there's a one-push "send to Photoshop" button, which exports the file to TIFF format and opens it up in Adobe's photo editor. Speaking of which, you can also open the camera's RAW files in Photoshop CS3, presuming that you have the latest Camera Raw plug-in.


Image Data Lightbox SR

A related program is known as Image Data Lightbox SR. This is an image browser that lets you select up to four images and view them zoomed in and side-by-side so you can compare details. The "synchronous" option moves the images you're comparing at the same time, which is quite handy.

Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction, without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. RAW files are quite a bit larger than their JPEG counterparts, though thankfully Sony offers a compressed RAW format, which helps to keep the file sizes down (by about 33%).


Remote Camera Control

The final piece of software included with the A700 is called Remote Capture Control. As its name implies, it lets you take photos from your computer via a USB connection. Photos are saved on your Mac or PC, so no memory card is needed. You can adjust many of the camera's settings in the software, though not even close to all of them.

The manual for the DSLR-A700 is split into two parts. There's a "Read This First" guide to get you up and running, and a much thicker manual that covers the details. The quality of the manuals is very good -- they're easy to read, with large type and a minimum of "notes" on each page. And that's a good thing, since this is a pretty complex camera.

Look and Feel

The DSLR-A700 is a midsize, rectangular-shaped digital SLR. It's made of a magnesium alloy (with some high grade plastic thrown in for good measure) and feels like a brick in your hands (that's good). The right hand grip is excellent, giving the A700 a secure feel in my hands. The buttons, dials, and doors on the camera are sealed against dust and moisture. Speaking of buttons, the camera has a lot of them -- it's a bit of a poster child for button clutter. Thankfully, they're all well-labeled.

The A700 is a larger, less-rounded version of the "old" DSLR-A100. Here's how the two look side-by-side:

DSLR-A100 DSLR-A700
   
Images courtesy of Sony Electronics. Photos not to scale.

As you can see, there are some similarities between the two, but a lot of differences as well.

Now, here's a look at how the A700 compares to other D-SLRs in its class:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS-40D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in. 69.4 cu in. 740 g
Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 in. 74 cu in. 830 g
Nikon D300 5.8 x 4.5 x 2.9 in. 75.7 cu in. 825 g
Nikon D80 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 cu in. 585 g
Olympus E-3 5.6 x 4.6 x 2.9 in. 74.7 cu in. 810 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 5.3 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 62.4 cu in. 480 g
Pentax K10D 5.6 x 4.0 x 2.8 in. 62.7 cu in. 710 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 5.6 x 4.3 x 3.3 in. 79.5 cu in. 690 g

While it's not quite the heaviest camera in its class, the DSLR-A700 is the largest, with the Nikon D300 close behind. I don't think the target audience of this camera will mind, though (I certainly don't).

Okay, enough about all that, let's start our tour of the A700 now, beginning with the front.

Here's the A700 without a lens attached. The A700 uses the Alpha (α) lens mount, which was first developed by Minolta. That means that your old KM lenses will work, plus the 20+ Sony-branded lenses that are now available (many of which are just rebadged Minolta lenses). There's a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio, so a 50mm lens has the field-of-view of a 75mm lens. To remove a lens from the camera, just press the button to the immediate right of the lens mount.

There are two important features hidden behind the mirror in the above photo. First is the A700's image stabilization system, which Sony calls Super SteadyShot. Sensors inside the camera detect the "camera shake" caused by the tiny motions of your hands, which can blur your photos (especially in low light, or when using a telephoto lens). The A700 compensates for this motion by shifting the sensor. Sony says that their IS system can give you a 2.5 to 4 stop advantage over unstabilized cameras. Since the IS system is built into the camera body, every lens you attach to the A700 will be stabilized (similar to the Olympus E-3).

Here's a quick example of the camera's OIS system in action:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

The two shots above were taken at the VERY slow shutter speed of 0.8 sec, so it's not surprising that it came out blurry without image stabilization. However, with SteadyShot turned on, I got a pretty darn sharp photo -- most impressive. Remember that image stabilization can't work miracles, though. It cannot freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second exposures without the use of a tripod. Still, it's an extremely helpful feature to have.

The same system that prevents camera shake is also used to remove dust from the CMOS sensor. Whenever you turn off the camera, the sensor is quickly shaken, which helps to knock dust off of the low pass filter. This same low pass filter is "charged", to help dust from settling there in the first place. As someone who has experienced dust issues on my own cameras, this is a feature I'm happy to see.

Above the lens mount is the A700's pop-up flash, which is released manually. The flash has a guide number (GN) of 12 meters at ISO 100. Checking the competition, the Canon EOS-40D and Olympus E-3 have a guide numbers of 13, the Nikon D300 is 12, and the Pentax K10D scores an 11. If you want more flash power, you can add an external flash via the hot shoe or flash sync port that you'll see in a bit.

Next to the A700 logo is the camera's dedicated AF-assist lamp (most D-SLRs use the flash). The camera uses this as a focusing aid in low light situations. This lamp also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Over on the grip you can see the remote control receiver and the "grip sensor". The grip sensor is tied into the EyeStart AF system, basically telling the camera that you're holding the camera and preparing to take a photo. More on this in a bit.

Though they're hard to see here, you'll find the depth-of-field preview button to the lower-left of the lens mount, with the focus mode dial on the opposite side. The focus mode dial lets you choose between, single, continuous, automatic, and manual focus. Single focus mode locks the focus when you halfway press the shutter release. In continuous mode, the camera continues to focus while the shutter release is halfway-pressed, which is useful when your subject is in motion. Automatic mode will switch between the two automatically, depending on what's going on in the frame.

Now that's a lot of buttons, dials, and switches! But before I get to those, I want to talk about the real star of the A700's "backside" -- its 3-inch LCD. The screen is stunning, and I'm guessing that Nikon is using the same one on their D3 and D300 cameras. The screen resolution is 640 x 480 (most are 320 x 240), with 921,600 dots (307,000 pixels) -- which is four times more than your typical LCD. The screen is exceptionally sharp, bright, and easy to see from a variety of angles. As I mentioned earlier, the A700 does not have a live view feature -- the screen is for menus and reviewing photos only.

Since there's no LCD info panel on the top of the camera, the main LCD has to pick up the slack. As you can see above, plenty of data is available, and if that's too much, a simpler view is also available. By pressing the Function button, you can use the four-way controller to adjust any of these settings, as you can see in the screenshot on the right. I should also mention that if you have the camera in the vertical orientation, that the data on this screen will be rotated appropriately.

Directly above the LCD is the camera's large and bright optical viewfinder. It has a magnification of 0.90x, and it shows 95% of the frame. Inside the viewfinder, just under the field of view, is a line of data in green. Here you'll see the shutter speed and aperture, exposure, buffer capacity, and how much camera shake the camera is detecting at that moment. A diopter correction knob, located on the right side of the eyepiece, focuses what you're seeing in the viewfinder.

On the bottom of the viewfinder are the sensors that make up the camera's EyeStart AF system. In a nutshell, if the camera detects that you're holding the camera (via the grip sensor) and you put your eye against the viewfinder, it will start to focus. I actually found this feature a bit annoying, and turned it off. Part of the camera's Minolta heritage, I guess.

Now let's talk about all the buttons, dials, and switches on the back of the A700. To the left of the viewfinder is the power switch -- easy enough. On the opposite side we find the AE lock button, which is also used for activating slow sync when you're using the flash. Around this button is the metering mode dial, which lets you select from multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot metering.

Next to that is the AF/MF button, which lets you quickly switch between auto and manual focus -- handy if you need to make a quick adjustment to the focus. Continuing to the right, we find the first of two command dials on the A700, which is used for adjusting manual settings or navigating the menus.

Working our way down now, we find the four-way controller. You'll use this for menu navigation, adjusting settings on the info display (described above), and for selecting one of the camera's 11 focus points.

Below that we have the custom and function buttons, plus the on/off switch for the Super SteadyShot system. By default, the custom button opens up the Creative Style menu (which I'll discuss later), but it can be programmed to do many other things. In playback mode, this button shows you more details about your photos. The function button activates the Quick Navigation feature that I described above, while in playback mode it will rotate the current photo. Oh, and why would you want to ever turn off the image stabilization system? A great time to do so is when the camera is on a tripod, where IS can actually do more harm than good.

Moving now to the left side of the LCD, we have four, very easy-to-describe buttons:

Believe it or not, that's the last of the items on the back of the A700!

Now onto the top of the camera. On the left side of things, we find the camera's mode dial, which has the following options:

Option Function
Auto mode Point and shoot with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. A Program Shift lets you quickly adjust the shutter speed or aperture by using the command dials.
Aperture priority mode You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range depends on lens used.
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed, camera picks aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/8000 sec.
Manual mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A manual shift mode lets you adjust the shutter speed and aperture together; a bulb mode will keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed.
Memory recall mode Stores up to three sets of your favorite camera settings
NIght view / portrait These are all scene modes
Sunset
Sports action
Macro
Landscape
Portrait

The full selection of manual controls on the A700 should not come as a surprise. The camera also lets you store three separate sets of cameras settings via its Memory Recall feature. If you don't want to even think about manual controls, then don't worry: the camera has both automatic and scene modes.

Next up, we have the A700's hot shoe, which is normally protected by a plastic cover. This is the legacy Konica Minolta hot shoe, so it won't work with your average off-the-shelf external flash, though you can use the flash sync port if you have one of those. The A700 works best with the two Sony flashes I described in the accessories section: you'll get TTL metering, high speed flash sync, and wireless support. Other flashes will probably have to be controlled manually. The A700 can sync as fast as 1/200 sec with image stabilization turned on, and 1/250 sec with it turned off.

Now I want to talk about the four buttons on the right side of the above photo. Here are what they control:

Lots to talk about before we move on. First, those drive modes. In high speed continuous mode, the camera took 14 RAW (including cRAW) and an unlimited number of JPEGs at an impressive 5 frames/second. If that's too fast for you, you can downshift into low speed continuous mode, which shoots at 3 frames/second. Checking the competition, the Olympus E-3 also shoots at 5 frames/second, while the Canon EOS-40D and Nikon D300 can do 6.5 and 6.0 fps, respectively.

Most of the other drive options are related to bracketing. You've can bracket for exposure (3 or 5 shots, either one at a time or continuously), white balance (3 shots in a row with either 10 or 20 mired between each shot), and now for dynamic range as well. The DRO advanced bracket feature will take just one exposure, but it will process it into three photos, each with an increasing amount of DRO applied to it. The more DRO that is applied, the more the shadow detail is brought out. I'll have an example of the DRO feature when I get to the mention discussion.


Manual white balance adjustment

The camera has more than its share of white balance controls as well. You have the usual presets, plus a custom mode that will let you use a white or gray card to obtain accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting (the A700 can store up to three of these custom WB settings). If that's still not enough, you can either set the white balance by color temperature (2500K - 9900K) or tweak the color in the green or magenta directions.


The lines around the three highest ISO settings are a warning about noise

The camera lets you adjust the ISO from 100 to 6400 in 1/3-step increments, and the camera highlights ISO 4000, 5000, and 6400 to remind you that photo quality will be compromised at those settings.

The last two items on the top of the DSLR-A700 are the shutter release button and the second command dial.

The main thing to see on this side of the A700 are its I/O ports. I should also mention the focus mode dial, which I mentioned earlier.

And now, those I/O ports, all of which are protected by rubber covers:


The left-most I/O ports are for an external flash (via a flash sync cable), the optional wired remote, and the optional AC adapter.

The port on the top is for HDMI video output. The A700 isn't the first camera to support HDMI out, but it's still a nice way to view your photos -- in HD. The included remote control lets you do it from the comfort of your recliner. Again, you'll need to buy a mini-HDMI to HDMI video cable, as it's not included with the camera.

If you don't have HDMI on your TV, don't worry -- that second port is for regular composite video output. That port is also used for USB, and the A700 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, as you'd expect.

On the other side of the camera you'll find its dual memory card slots, which are protected by a plastic door of decent quality. The smaller slot on the left is for Memory Stick Duo cards, while the big one is for CompactFlash Type I and II cards. The A700 supports UDMA CompactFlash cards, which can write data as fast as 40MB/sec.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The door over the battery compartment is of average quality.

The included NP-FM500H InfoLithium battery is shown at right.

Using the Sony Alpha DSLR-A700

Record Mode

The A700 is ready to shoot a fraction of second after it's been turned on.

Autofocus speeds will vary depending on your choice of lens. With both the 16 - 105 mm kit lens as well as the optional 16 - 80 mm Zeiss lens, focus times were very snappy. Typically you'll wait between 0.1 and 0.3 seconds for the camera to lock focus, with slightly longer waits at the telephoto end of the lens. If the camera really had to "hunt", the wait could exceed a second, but that wasn't common. Low light focusing was very good thanks to the camera's AF-assist lamp. Even in near total darkness, the camera was able to lock focus.

Shutter lag wasn't an issue, nor would I expect it to be.

Shot-to-shot delays were minimal. You can literally shoot as fast as you can compose your shots, or at least until you hit the buffer limit (which isn't easy).

You can delete a photo after you've taken it by pressing -- get ready -- the delete photo button!

Now, let's take a look at the numerous image size and quality choices on the A700:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 1GB CF card (optional)
Large (12MP, 3:2)
4272 x 2848
RAW 18.8 MB 52
cRAW 12.9 MB 76
RAW+JPEG 24.4 MB 40
cRAW+JPEG 18.4 MB 53
Extra fine 10.5 MB 93
Fine 5.6 MB 174
Standard 3.8 MB 255
Large (10MP, 16:9)
4272 x 2400
RAW 18.8 MB 52
cRAW 12.9 MB 76
RAW+JPEG 23.8 MB 41
cRAW+JPEG 17.8 MB 55
Extra fine 9.0 MB 109
Fine 4.9 MB 201
Standard 3.4 MB 291
Medium (6.4MP, 3:2)
3104 x 2064
RAW+JPEG 22.2 MB 44
cRAW+JPEG 16.3 MB 60
Extra fine 6.1 MB 160
Fine 3.4 MB 286
Standard 2.4 MB 400

Medium (5.4MP, 16:9)
3104 x 1744

RAW 22.2 MB 44
cRAW+JPEG 16.0 MB 61
Extra fine 5.3 MB 185
Fine 3.0 MB 325
Standard 2.2 MB 446
Small (3MP, 3:2)
2128 x 1424
RAW 21.2 MB 46
cRAW+JPEG 15.0 MB 65
Extra fine 3.7 MB 266
Fine 2.2 MB 452
Standard 1.7 MB 589
Small (2.6MP, 16:9)
2128 x 1200
RAW 20.8 MB 47
cRAW+JPEG 14.8 MB 66
Extra fine 3.2 MB 305
Fine 1.9 MB 503
Standard 1.5 MB 650

If that's not the longest table in the history of this site, then it's close. The DSLR-A700 supports tons of different image size and quality options, including two RAW modes, two RAW+JPEG modes, and three different JPEG compression levels. The RAW and cRAW formats both allow for the same post-shot manipulation, with the latter being compressed, allowing for a smaller file size.

The DSLR-A700 names its files DSC0####.JPG where M = month, D = day, and #### = 0001 - 9999. As you'd expect, the numbering is maintained until you choose to reset it.

The A700 has an stylish and easy-to-navigate menu system that looks absolutely gorgeous on the high resolution LCD (the screenshots below don't do it justice). The menu is divided into several tabs, containing recording, custom, playback, and setup options. Here is the complete list:

Recording Menu
  • Image size (Large, medium, small)
  • Aspect ratio (3:2, 16:9)
  • Quality (RAW, cRAW, RAW+JPEG, cRAW+JPEG, extra fine, fine, standard)
  • D-Range Optimizer (Off, standard, advanced auto, advanced level 1-5) - see below
  • Creative Style (Standard, vivid, neutral, Adobe RGB, custom 1-3) - see below
  • Custom button (AF lock, AF/MF control, DOF preview, ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, flash compensation, drive mode, AF area, image size, quality, creative style, DRO, flash mode, memory) - define what this button does
  • Exposure step (0.3, 0.5)
  • Flash mode (Auto, fill flash, rear sync, wireless)
  • Flash control (ADI flash, pre-flash, manual flash) - how the flash metering works
    • Power ratio (1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16) - only available when manual flash is selected
  • Flash compensation (-3EV to +3EV in 1/3-step increments)
  • ISO Auto max (400, 800, 1600)
  • ISO Auto min (200, 400)
  • AF-A setup (Automatic AF, direct manual focus) - the latter lets you manually focus after autofocus has run
  • AF area (Wide, spot, local) - the latter allows you to manually select one of the eleven focus points
  • Priority setup (AF, release) - whether the shutter will release if focus isn't locked
  • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
  • AF w/shutter (on/off) - whether camera focuses when you halfway-press the shutter release
  • Long exposure noise reduction (on/off)
  • High ISO noise reduction (Low, normal, high)
  • Memory - save current settings to memory for later retrieval
  • Record mode reset
Custom Menu
  • EyeStart AF (on/off) - whether camera focuses when you put your eye against the viewfinder
  • EyeStart trigger (With grip sensor, without grip sensor) - and whether the grip sensor is involved
  • AF/MF button (AF/MF control, AF lock)
    • AF/MF control (Hold, toggle) - only shown when previous option is set to AF/MF control
  • AF drive speed (Fast, slow)
  • AF area display (Off, 0.3, 0.6 secs)
  • Focus hold button (Focus hold, DOF preview) - for lenses that have this button
  • AEL button (AEL hold, AEL toggle, spot AEL hold, spot AEL toggle) - what this button does
  • Control dial setup (Shutter speed/aperture, aperture/shutter speed) - which dial does what
  • Dial exposure compensation (Off, front, rear) - allows you to adjust exposure comp with the command dials
  • Control dial lock (on/off) - whether the control dials are active at all times
  • Button operations (Exclusive display, quick navigation menu) - whether the direct buttons take you to their own menu, or just to their spot on the quick navigation menu (rec info screen)
  • Release w/o card (Enable, disable)
  • Release w/o lens (Enable, disable)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Exposure compensation set (Ambient & flash, ambient only)
  • Bracket order (0/-/+, -/0/+)
  • Auto review (Off, 2, 5, 10 secs)
  • Auto off w/viewfinder (on/off) - whether the LCD info screen turns off when you use the viewfinder
  • Rec info display (Auto rotate, horizontal) - whether the rec info display rotates when the camera does
  • Image orientation (Record, do not record)
  • Custom reset
Playback Menu
  • Delete (Marked images, all images)
  • Format
  • Protect (Marked images, all images, cancel all)
  • DPOF setup (Marked images, all images, cancel all)
  • Date imprint (on/off)
  • Index print (Create, delete)
  • Playback display (Auto rotate, manual rotate) - whether portraits are automatically rotated)
  • Slideshow
    • Interval (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 secs)
Setup Menu
  • LCD brightness (-5 to +5, in 1-step increments)
  • Info display time (5, 10, 30 secs, 1 min) - how long the rec info display is shown
  • Power save (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 mins)
  • Video output (NTSC, PAL)
  • HDMI output (1080i, 720p, SD)
  • Language
  • Date/time setup
  • Memory card (Memory Stick, CompactFlash)
  • File number (Series, reset)
  • Folder name (Standard form, date form)
  • Select folder
    • New folder
  • USB connection (Mass Storage, PTP, Remote PC)
    • Mass Storage card (Both cards, selected card) - whether one or both memory cards are shown when you're connected to a PC
  • Menu start (Top, previous) - where you start off in the menus
  • Delete confirm (Delete first, cancel first) - this one's dangerous
  • Audio signals (on/off)
  • Cleaning mode - flips up the mirror so you can use a blower to clean off any leftover dust
  • Reset default

I want to mention two items before we move on. The first one I already touched on, and that's the Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO). This will boost the dynamic range of your photo, bringing out shadow detail. The basic "standard" option corrects the brightness and contrast of the entire image. The Advanced option optimizes brightness, contrast, and color area-by-area. You can also adjust how much DRO is applied to the image by adjusting the "level" from 1 to 5. The bracketing option I mentioned earlier makes this quite easy. Below is an example of the DRO system in action -- click the links to change the DRO setting.

Standard Advanced auto +1 DRO +2 DRO +3 DRO +4 DRO +5 DRO

As you can see, there are only minor differences between Standard and Advanced Auto mode, with the latter being a bit darker in the shadows. Things brighten up quickly when you're manually adjusting the DRO, and it becomes a little over-the-top at the highest settings. In my own time with the camera, I usually kept it at +3 when I needed the shadows brightened. If you're shooting in RAW mode, you can adjust this settings using Image Data Converter, as well.

The only other feature I want to describe is called Creative Styles, which is a whole lot like Picture Styles on Canon's D-SLRs. There are four preset (standard, vivid, neutral, and Adobe RGB) plus three custom styles (1 - 3). For those custom styles you can start with various presets, including the four I just listed plus clear, deep, light, portrait, landscape, sunset, night view, autumn leaves, B&W, and sepia. If you want to further tweak the settings, you can: contrast, saturation, sharpness, brightness, and zone matching can all be adjusted. If you're shooting RAW, you can adjust all of these items when you're post-processing.

And that's all I really want to say about the menu options! Let's move on to the test photos now, all of which were taken with the 16 - 105 mm kit lens.

The DSLR-A700 did an excellent job with our macro test subject. Colors are spot-on, and nicely saturated as well -- the A700 clearly had no trouble with my studio lamps. The subject has a very smooth appearance, which is what you expect to see on a digital SLR.

How close you'll be able to get to your subject depends on your choice of lens. If you plan on doing a lot of close-up photography, then you may want to consider getting a dedicated macro lens. Sony makes two of them, with focal ranges of 50 and 100 mm.

The night shot turned out just as well. The camera took in plenty of light, which isn't surprising, as you have full control over shutter speed. The image is a tad soft, but there's still a lot of detail captured here. If you're looking for noise or purple fringing, keep looking -- there isn't any. I should also mention that the camera handled that US Bank sign perfectly, which is frequently blown out by other cameras.

I have two ISO tests for you in this review, and the first one uses the night scene you see above. In each shot, I increased the ISO in full-stop increments. Long exposure noise reduction was turned on. Here we go:


ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

There's very little difference between the first two crops. At ISO 400 we start to see a bit of detail loss due to noise reduction, but a mid-to-large print is still possible here. The ISO 800 shot is slightly worse, but still usable for midsize prints (and larger, if you shoot in RAW). Noise reduction really starts to smudge details at ISO 1600, so I'd save this setting for small prints only. I'm not sure what you can do at sensitivities above that -- details are really wiped out. I'd definitely shoot in RAW mode at the higher sensitivities, as you'll be able to extract more detail out of the photos (more on that later). At the highest ISO settings, I think the Canon EOS-40D does slightly better than the A700, though shooting in RAW could negate this.

I wouldn't expect to see redeye on a digital SLR (since the flash is so far from the lens), and the A700 didn't disappoint. No red eyes here!

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 16 - 105 mm kit lens. In real life, this will make things like buildings appear to curve inward. While vignetting (dark corners) wasn't a problem, I did see mild corner blurriness in a few of my photos.

Here's that second ISO test I promised you. This one is taken in the studio, and the results can be compared to those from other cameras I've reviewed. While the crops give you a hint about the noise levels at each ISO setting, I highly recommend viewing the full size images to get the most out of this test.


ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

Everything looks as smooth as butter through ISO 800. Noise reduction starts to degrade the image a bit at ISO 1600, though there's plenty of detail left for a large-sized print. At ISO 3200 there's a slight color shift, and more noticeable detail loss due to noise reduction. If you look over at the ISO 3200 shot from the EOS-40D you'll see that Canon applies a lot less noise reduction to their photos, retaining more detail (at the expense of noise) than the A700. The A700's ISO 6400 setting isn't great -- there's a drop in exposure and color, and the whole image is pretty mottled. These are best left alone, in my opinion.

Want to see how to get more detail out of the A700? Just shoot in RAW mode!


The RAW image (left) looks considerably better than the straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG (right)

Above you can see a comparison between two images, which I created using Image Data Lightbox. It's the same photo, which I took as a RAW and a JPEG at ISO 3200. As you can see, there's more detail and a lot less mottling in the RAW image (at left) than in the JPEG. Thus, if you don't mind post-processing your high ISO shots, it's worth shooting in RAW. Another option is to turn the high ISO noise reduction to low, though this won't give you the same level of control as shooting in RAW.

Overall, I was very pleased with the photos produced by the DSLR-A700. My only complaint is that the camera had the occasional tendency to underexpose photos, but that's easy enough to fix. Aside from that, the news is good. The A700 produces pictures with vibrant colors, minimal noise, and near-zero purple fringing. Like most D-SLRs, images are on the soft side out of the camera, and if you agree, you can turn up the in-camera sharpening by using the Creative Styles feature.

Now, have a look at our photo gallery, which has all the usual suspects, plus some bonus shots of cars I can't afford. While you're there, print a few of the photos as if they were yours. Then you should be able to decide for yourself if the camera's photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

Digital SLRs do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The DSLR-A700 has a pretty basic playback mode. You get slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, image rotation, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the image by as much as 13 times, and then move around in the enlarged area -- perfect for verifying focus or sharpness. You can also move from image to image -- keeping the same zoom and location -- by using the top command dial.

The camera doesn't have any photo retouching or editing functions, unlike the Nikon and Olympus D-SLRs. The only thing you can do to photos is rotate them.


Various thumbnail views on the A700

Photos can be deleted all at once, one at a time, or as marked. To quickly delete a bunch of photos you can switch into one of the thumbnail views you see above.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the custom (C) button and you'll get a lot more, including a histogram.

The A700 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

With their Alpha DSLR-A700, Sony has created a midrange digital SLR that keeps up with the "big boys". The A700 offers an excellent mix of photo quality, performance, features, and build quality -- not to mention support for legacy Minolta lenses. Yes, it's lacking the live view feature of its competitors, but I don't really miss it, to be honest. While I don't see Canon and Nikon owners rushing to eBay to sell their gear to buy the A700, it's a great D-SLR for those with a collection of Minolta lenses. I enjoyed my time with the DSLR-A700, and can recommend it without hesitation.

The A700 is a fairly large, rectangular-shaped digital SLR. Not only does it look a bit like a brick, it feels like one too, courtesy of its magnesium alloy body. The camera's substantial right hand grip allows the camera to sit comfortably in your hand. The A700 features Sony's new 12.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor, which features a dust reduction system. The camera's Super SteadyShot image stabilization system moves the sensor to compensation for the effects of "camera shake", and it worked quite well for me. Since the IS system is built into the camera, every lens you attach will be stabilized, so there's no need to spend more on special stabilized lenses. The LCD on the A700 is absolutely fantastic. The resolution is leagues better than everything else on the market (save the D3/D300), though you'll only be using it for reviewing photos and operating the camera's menu system. The A700 is loaded with I/O ports, with the most notable one being an HDMI output port (cable not included). It also has dual memory card slots: one for CompactFlash, and the other for Memory Stick Duo. My only design complaints are the "legacy" hot shoe, and the scattering of buttons all around the camera, some of which are hard to find when you're shooting.

The A700 has quite a feature set, though it's a bit weak in the playback department. If you want point-and-shoot, you've got an auto mode and six scene modes. I imagine that most people will be using the camera's manual controls, and there are plenty to choose from. You've got the usual manual exposure modes, the ability to tweak the white balance to your heart's content, a custom button on the back of the camera, and the ability to store three sets of camera settings to the "MR" spot on the mode dial. Want more? The Creative Styles option lets you have preset contrast/saturation/sharpness/brightness/zone matching settings that you can access at the push of a button. There's also a dynamic range enhancement feature (which works well, just don't overdo it), and you can even use bracketing for that one. Naturally, the A700 can shoot in RAW format, and Sony has included a compressed RAW option as well. Editing RAW files is easy with the included Image Data Converter software, which lets you adjust virtually every parameter imaginable. The camera can also be controlled remotely via the bundled software.

Camera performance was excellent. The A700 is ready to shoot as soon as you turn it on, so you'll never miss a shot. Focus times were very good with the lenses I tested, with minimal delays. Low light focusing was accurate even in very low light, thanks to the camera's dedicated AF-assist lamp. Shutter lag wasn't a problem, and shot-to-shot speeds were excellent. While it can't shoot quite as fast as the 40D or D300, the A700 can still fire off 14 RAW/cRAW or an unlimited number of JPEGs at 5 frames/second. The camera's battery life was about average, and you can double it by using the optional battery grip. As you'd expect, the A700 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

Photo quality was excellent in most respects. The A700 took photos with pleasing, saturated colors. Photos are a bit on the soft side, which is typical of D-SLRs, though that's easy enough to fix if it bothers you. Noise isn't really a problem when you're shooting JPEGs -- instead, you'll get noise reduction artifacting, but not until ISO 1600 and above. If you're shooting at those sensitivities, you will get more detail out of your photos by shooting RAW instead. While I'm yet to test the Olympus E-3 and Nikon D300, the A700 holds its own against the Canon EOS-40D (except at high ISOs -- but shooting in RAW even things out). The camera did tend to underexpose a bit, but again, this is easy to work around once you get used to it. Redeye, which plagues compact cameras, is not a problem on this big D-SLR.

Sony's second digital SLR is a mix of new and old, meant to appeal to newcomers and Minolta enthusiasts alike. You get the new technology of a modern Sony camera, including a new CMOS sensor and an amazing LCD display, with "classic" Minolta features like EyeStart AF, sensor-shift image stabilization, and the Alpha lens mount, all in one compelling package. If you've got a bunch of Minolta lenses waiting for a capable body to attach themselves to, then this is your camera. Even if you don't, the DSLR-A700 is a very good midrange D-SLR that should definitely be considered.

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

Some other midrange D-SLRs to consider include the Canon EOS-40D, Fuji FinePix S5 Pro, Nikon D300, Olympus E-3, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 and the Pentax K10D.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the A700 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the A700's photo quality in our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have questions about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.

Want another opinion?

You'll find another A700 review at CNET.com. The previews at Digital Photography Review and Imaging Resource should be turned into final reviews shortly.

 

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