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Minolta DiMAGE A1
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: December 10, 2003
Last Updated: December 10, 2003
The Konica Minolta DiMAGE A1 ($899) is a lot more than a simple "add a few new features and slap a new name on the box" upgrade to its predecessor, the DiMAGE 7Hi. Minolta has designed a revolutionary new CCD with image stabilization built in. This works differently than your typical optical image stabilization (like on the Panasonic FZ-series), in that the CCD, rather than the lens elements, are moving to counteract the movement caused by "camera shake". Minolta calls this system Anti-Shake, and you can get a good idea about how it works on this page. The Anti-Shake system lets you take sharp pictures at shutter speeds that would be blurry on other cameras.
Did I mention that the A1 also has a 5 Megapixel sensor, 7X optical zoom lens, full manual controls, and a hot shoe? Sounds impressive to me. How does it perform? Find out now.
What's in the Box?
The DiMAGE A1 has an above average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
The first thing you'll want to do after buying the A1 is pick up a larger memory card. The included 16MB card holds a grand total of TWO images at the highest quality (JPEG) setting. The A1 can use both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, including the Microdrive. The camera supports the FAT32 format, so cards larger than 2GB can be used. I'd consider 256MB to be the minimum-size card for this camera.
One big difference between the A1 and the 7Hi is the battery situation. While the 7Hi used four AAs, the A1 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery known as the NP-400. This battery has a whopping 11.1 Wh of energy -- beating out Olympus' BLM-1 for the "most powerful battery" award. All that juice translates into impressive battery life. Minolta estimates that you can take about 330 pictures, or spend five hours in playback mode, per charge. Do note the usual disadvantages of proprietary batteries like this one: price ($45 a pop) and the fact that you can't "bail yourself out" with AAs when your rechargeables die.
When you're ready to charge the NP-400, just snap it into the included charger. It takes about 2.5 hours to fully charge the battery. This isn't one of those "plug it right into the wall" chargers that I like so much -- there's a power cable.
A1 + included lens hood + optional battery pack
If one battery just isn't enough for you, then consider buying the BP-400 battery pack ($120). It holds two NP-400 batteries, or six AAs (you'll get more battery life with the former), giving you 660 photos or 10 hours of playback time per charge! In addition to the extra battery life, there's also a shutter release button, used when the camera is held vertically.
Two other power options are the EBP-100 and EP-2 external battery packs ($275 and $120 respectively). Unfortunately, that's all I know about those two products.
Minolta includes a lens cap and lens hood (shown in previous picture) with the camera. I could not find a retaining strap for the lens cap in the box. As you can see, the A1 is quite a handful (if you excuse the pun).
There are quite a few accessories available for the A1. Unfortunately, conversion lenses are not available. You can, however, add filters. The A1's lens is threaded for 49mm attachments, and a 49 - 62mm step-up ring is also available ($15). Like external flashes? You can choose from three regular flashes (2500, 3600HS, and 5600HS) as well as a ring flash or two. The camera works with wireless flashes -- just follow the easy instructions in the manual. A PC sync cable adapter is also available.
Other accessories include a remote shutter release cable ($37), AC adapter ($60), and a carrying case.
Included with the camera is version 2.2 of the Minolta's DiMAGE Viewer software. It's certainly not a substitute for something like Photoshop Elements, but it does basic editing fairly well. The software is Mac OS X native.
DiMAGE Viewer can also be used to view, edit, and convert images saved in RAW format. One the great things about RAW mode is that you can do a virtual re-shoot of your photo. For example, the photo above was taken at auto white balance, and just didn't look right (too yellow). All I had to do was change the white balance to tungsten and it was fixed instantly!
If you're just looking to connect your camera and transfer files, you'll be pleased to hear that the A1 is Windows XP and OS X compatible -- and you probably won't have to install any drivers.
An optional software product that you may be interested in is DiMAGE Capture ($110). As you can see, this you control your camera from you Windows PC over the USB connection (no Mac version is available). Images are saved directly to your computer, and virtually all camera functions can be controlled with the software.
Minolta's manuals have always been much better than average, and the A1's is no exception. Expect long, descriptive paragraphs, without a lot of fine print.
Look and Feel
The DiMAGE A1 is fairly large camera, so don't expect to be storing it in your pockets. It's well-built, with a metal frame and sturdy parts (with one exception that you'll see later). The camera is very easy to hold, with a substantial right hand grip and plenty of room for your left hand as well.
The official dimensions of the camera are 117.0 x 85.0 x 113.5 mm / 4.6 x 3.4 x 4.5 inches (W x H x D, excluding protrusions), and it weighs 560 g / 19.8 oz empty.
Let's dive into our tour of the A1 now, beginning with the front of the camera.
One of the hallmark features of the DiMAGE 7 series was its 7X zoom lens, and it's used once again on the A1. This is an F2.8-3.5, 7X optical zoom Minolta GT lens. The focal range is 7.2 - 50.8mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 200mm. The lens is threaded for 49 mm attachments.
Directly above the lens is the A1's pop-up flash. The flash has a working range of 0.5 - 3.8 m at wide-angle, and 0.5 - 3.0 m at telephoto (at auto ISO). The flash has a recharge time of approximately 5 seconds. As I mentioned, you can add a Minolta-branded external flash via the hot shoe you'll see in a moment. The flash is released manually -- just grab it and pop it up.
Just above that "AS" label on the camera is the remote control sensor.
Those metal things on the grip are called the grip sensor. This tells the camera that you're holding the camera, which turns on full-time autofocus (assuming you've turned on this option). This feature helps preserve battery life, by not constantly focusing when you're not ready to shoot.
There's no AF-assist lamp on the A1. That's not a huge problem, as the camera focuses very well without one.
One of the new tricks on the A1 is the flip-up LCD display. It can flip up 90 degrees, and you can also pull it out toward you. It's nice, but not quite as good as screens that rotate as well.
Another thing worth noting is the electronic viewfinder, or EVF. It can tilt upward 90 degrees, just like the LCD.
I'll have more on both of those in a second.
Here's the LCD in the more traditional position. The screen is 1.8" in size, which is typical for cameras like this. The resolution is fairly high, with 118,000 pixels. Images are sharp, and motion is fluid, except in low light, when the camera turns up the gain, so you can see what you're looking at. That's a tradeoff I'm willing to live with. You can adjust the LCD brightness in the setup menu.
The EVF is located just above the LCD. It's basically a small screen that you look at, as if it was an optical viewfinder. The EVF's resolution is excellent, with 235,000 pixels, and it's just as bright and smooth as the LCD. Also like the LCD, the EVF boosts the gain when you're in low light, making the screen actually usable in low light (unlike most EVFs). There's a diopter correction knob that you can use to focus the image on the EVF.
The EVF has an eye sensor, which turns on the screen when your eye is up against it. This only works while the display mode switch is set to "auto".
To the right of the EVF is the power/mode switch. In addition to turning the camera on and off, this switch also moves between record, playback, and movie mode.
Below that is the button for adjusting exposure compensation. The range is the usual -2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments.
To the lower-left of that button is the aforementioned display mode switch. You can choose the EVF, LCD, or automatic (uses the EVF when your eye is near it, otherwise uses the LCD).
To the right is the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation as well as the "flex focus point" feature. This lets you select a spot in the frame for the camera to focus on -- a feature most useful when your camera is on a tripod.
Continuing downward, we find three buttons:
The QuickView feature is the fast way to playback mode. Turning on Anti-Shake activates the image stabilizer, and you'll know it's on when the button turns green. I was able to take pictures at 1/15 sec with no blurring -- something you can't do on a non-stabilized camera (unless you have a very steady hand).
Below those buttons, under a rubber cover, you'll find two I/O ports:
The final items on the back of the camera can be found at the top-right of the photo. The AE Lock button locks the exposure for as long as you have the button held down.
Above that is the command dial, which is used to adjust manual settings (i.e. shutter speed, aperture).
The first thing to see on the top of the camera is the hot shoe. As I mentioned, you can choose from many Minolta flashes, and can even control your flashes wirelessly! A PC flash sync port on the side of the camera is also available.
Moving to the right, you can find the LCD info display -- which seems to be a rarity these days. The info display shows current settings, shots remaining, battery capacity, and more. As you can see, it's also backlit -- it lights up whenever you press a button on the camera.
Below that are two buttons. The "i+" button toggles the information shown on the LCD and EVF. The magnification button has two functions. If the 2X digital zoom is turned on, pressing the button activates it. If you've got the "flex digital magnifier" feature turned on, you can enlarge your image by 2 or 8 times, and then move around in the frame. This feature is only available in manual focus -- where it is most useful.
The next item over is the A1's mode dial, which has the following options:
In program mode, you can use the "program shift" feature by using either of the command dials. This lets you scroll through various shutter speed / aperture combinations. It's useful when you want to use a smaller aperture (for more depth-of-field) without having to use aperture priority mode.
To the north of the mode dial is the microphone, with another command dial and the shutter release button above that.
There's a lot to see on this of the camera. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the A1 (like its predecessors) is a complex camera. Reading the manual is highly recommended.
The first thing to talk about is the zoom controller. Like with the DiMAGE 7-series, the zoom is controlled manually, by rotating the lens barrel. The 35mm-equivalent focal range is shown on the lens barrel, and there are marking for the macro position as well. The level of control is far greater than on your typical camera with pushbutton zoom controllers.
The macro switch locks the lens at either 28mm or 200mm -- the two available macro positions. More on macro mode later in the review.
The next item over is the manual focus ring, which works electronically (as opposed to mechanically, like the zoom ring). More on this in a second.
Moving to the upper-right part of the picture (just above the DiMAGE A1 label), you'll find another dial. This one (known as the function dial) controls some of the most commonly-accessed camera settings, including:
As you can see, plenty to talk about. The A1 has several white balance modes, including a manual mode, where you can shoot a white or gray card, in order to get perfect color in any lighting. You can save up to three manual WB values for later use. By using the command dial on the back of the camera, you can fine-tune any of the white balance modes (except for auto and manual). The levels are -2 to +4 for fluorescent, and -3 to +3 for everything else.
As I hinted at before, you can save up to five sets of your favorite camera settings to memory for later retrieval. This is a very handy feature, and I'm glad to see it become more popular on cameras (even lower-end models).
Back to the tour now. The items below that dial include the A1's speaker, and a standard flash sync port.
Below that is yet another dial (known as the digital effects controller), with the following options:
The filter feature isn't something you see everyday. In color mode, a higher filter number will "warm" the colors, while a lower number will "cool" them. In black and white mode, each value (0 to 10 in this case) has a different color tone. For example, choosing filter level 4 will give you a greenish-monochrome image. The back inside cover of the manual has a nice example of how the filters work.
In case you missed it, the auto bracketing feature lets you bracket for each of those bullet points above -- even filters.
Back to our tour again. Below the digital effects controller is the focus switch. It moves between single, continuous, and manual focus. In continuous AF mode, the camera will keep focusing, as long as the shutter release button is halfway pressed. This is used in situations where your subject is moving. In manual focus mode, you'll use the focus ring to change the current focus distance. The magnification feature helps make sure you subject is properly focused.
To the left of that switch is the manual white balance button. This is what you'll press when you want to shoot that white or gray card.
Thankfully, there are no buttons on this side of the camera. What you will find here is the CompactFlash slot, which is protected by a flimsy plastic door. If you remember the old DiMAGE 7-series, one of the minor annoyances was that that strap holder was always in the way when you were trying to close the door. That's no longer a problem.
The A1 supports both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, including the Microdrive. The bundled 16MB card is shown.
I've also shown the lens at it's full telephoto position, so you can see how far it sticks out from the camera body. The view of the other side of the camera showed the lens at full wide-angle.
Finally, we reach the end of our tour. Down here you'll find the metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The tripod mount is neither centered, nor inline with the lens. The battery compartment has a fairly sturdy door (with a lock) over it.
The included NP-400 battery is shown at right.
Using the Minolta DiMAGE A1
The A1 has a very impressive startup time of 1.5 seconds, due to the fact that the lens doesn't need to extend.
Minolta's ads don't lie: the A1 focuses very quickly, especially on "easy" subjects. Subjects that are more difficult to focus on will take closer to a second to be locked. Despite not having an AF-assist lamp, the A1 focused very well in low light. Being able to see what you're looking at on the EVF and LCD are a big help.
Once you've locked focus, you can use the direct manual focus (DMF) feature to manually focus the camera -- just in case it's not perfect. Just keep the shutter release halfway pressed, and use the focus ring. The continuous AF mode will let you track a moving subject across the frame.
Shutter lag was very brief, even at slower shutter speeds. The good focusing and shutter lag make the A1 great for action photography.
A live histogram is shown in record mode
Shot-to-shot speed is excellent, with a lag of a little over a second before you can take another shot, assuming instant playback is turned off. If you're using instant playback, you can half-press the shutter release to go back to shooting immediately.
To delete a photo after it is taken, you must first enter QuickView mode.
Now, here's a look at the many resolution and quality choices on the DiMAGE A1:
|Quality||Resolution||Approx. File Size||# images on 16MB card|
|RAW||2560 x 1920||7.2 MB||2|
|TIFF||2560 x 1920||14.2 MB||1|
|2080 x 1560||9.3 MB||1|
|1600 x 1200||5.5 MB||2|
|640 x 480||900 KB||15|
|Extra Fine||2560 x 1920||4.8 MB||2|
|2080 x 1560||3.2 MB||4|
|1600 x 1200||1.9 MB||7|
|640 x 480||420 KB||35|
|Fine||2560 x 1920||2.5 MB||5|
|2080 x 1560||1.7 MB||8|
|1600 x 1200||1.0 MB||14|
|640 x 480||320 KB||47|
|Standard||2560 x 1920||1.5 MB||10|
|2080 x 1560||1.0 MB||14|
|1600 x 1200||656 KB||23|
|640 x 480||240 KB||63|
A couple of things to talk about regarding that chart. First, you can see that Minolta gives you some nice JPEG options -- the file sizes in Extra Fine mode are huge!
I touched on the RAW mode in the first section of the review. There's no performance penalty for shooting in this mode. The same goes for TIFF mode -- you can just keep shooting until the buffer fills up. On most cameras, the camera is locked up for 20 seconds or longer while the TIFF is saved to memory. Good job Minolta!
The camera saves images with a name of PICT####.JPG, where #### = 0001-9999. The camera will maintain the file numbering, even as you erase/replace memory cards.
The DiMAGE A1 has an attractive and easy to use menu system, which stands as a contrast to the rest of the camera, which can be challenging to use. The main menu is divided into four tabs. The available options include:
Some of those flash control options sound a little confusing. ADI, or advanced distance integration, uses distance information from the autofocus system, as well as a pre-flash, to judge flash exposure. Pre-flash TTL just uses the pre-flash. Manual flash control lets you choose the flash strength yourself (full power, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16). Manual flash control can also be used with slave flashes.
Data imprint not only lets you print the data on your photos (and in the EXIF headers), but data and text as well. You can have serial numbers or any other text you choose right on your picture. This is a rarely encountered feature.
The DSP set item lets you redefine the digital subject program (scene mode) spots on the mode dial to be used for the memory recall feature. Basically it saves you a trip to the menu.
The DiMAGE A1 also a substantial setup menu, with the following options:
Well that was exhausting. Let's continue now with photo quality tests.
Like its predecessors, the DiMAGE A1 has a rather unconventional macro mode. You must lock the lens at either the wide-angle or telephoto position (there's a little "play" on the latter), making it a little hard to get the perfect shot. The minimum distance from the CCD to the subject is 30 cm at wide-angle and 25 cm at telephoto (usually the latter is much further) -- this is no Coolpix. Note that the distances I usually publish are from the end of the lens, rather than the CCD.
Even though things are a little different, I was still able to take a very nice macro test shot, as you can see above. Color is accurate, and the subject is sharp. The only negative thing that I noticed was a little bit of noise on Mickey's ears.
F4.5, 3.2 sec
The A1 produced an excellent night shot. I was most impressed with the amount of detail in the image -- you can practically see furniture inside the offices. Noise and purple fringing were both low, though I did spot a hot pixel or two. Full manual controls will let you take long exposures just like this -- just remember your tripod.
Using that night shot, here's a look at how changing the ISO sensitivity affects image noise:
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As you can see, noise starts pretty low at ISO 100, but it begins to ramp up quickly at ISO 200. At ISO 800, it's too noisy to be terribly useful.
Look at those sleepy eyes! Too many hours of writing are the cause. Anyhow, there's no redeye to be seen here -- just a little flash reflection.
The A1's wide-angle lens produces moderate barrel distortion, as you'd expect. There's no vignetting (dark corners) to be seen, which is good news.
Overall, I was very pleased with the DiMAGE A1's photo quality. Noise levels were tad bit higher, but really no worse than other cameras in its class. However, do watch out for noise at Auto ISO, especially with flash shots. Colors were accurate, images were sharp, and exposure was good. Purple fringing, often an issue on "big zoom" cameras, was not a problem here.
The ultimate judge of quality is your eyes -- please visit our photo gallery and decide if the quality is acceptable to you. You are also welcome to have the photos printed.
The DiMAGE A1's movie mode has improved since the 7Hi, but it's not nearly as nice as the one on the DiMAGE Z1. You can record 320 x 240 videos, with sound, until the memory card is full. There's actually a border around the video, so the actual video resolution is a little lower than advertised. The frame rate is a healthy 24 fps, so videos are not choppy. The included 16MB CF card holds a great total of 19 seconds of video, so a larger card is helpful for movie making.
Since the zoom is mechanically operated, you can use it during filming.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format.
Here's a last minute sample movie that I shot in my backyard. Oops!
Click to play movie (2.9MB, QuickTime format)
Can't play it? Download QuickTime.
The A1 has a pretty standard playback mode. Basic playback options include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll.
The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom in as much as 8X (in 0.2X increments) into your photo, and then scroll around. This feature is well-implemented.
Two useful features that I couldn't find were image rotation and resizing. There were two nice features that were available though: copying and deleting marked frames. The copy feature lets you transfer photos from one memory card to another in 15MB increments. The delete feature lets you delete one, all, or a group of photos (the latter being quite useful in my opinion).
By default, the A1 doesn't give you a lot of information about your photos. However, press "up" on the four-way controller and you'll see much more, including a histogram.
The camera moves between photos with breathtaking speed -- it's basically instantaneous.
How Does it Compare?
There's a lot to like about the Minolta DiMAGE A1. It's a worthy upgrade to the already-nice DiMAGE 7Hi, and it's also one of the best "prosumer" cameras out there. The most important thing about a camera is photo quality, and the A1 does not disappoint, with photo quality that is competitive with the competition. Then there's performance, where the A1 performs better than average, even in low lighting conditions. The "monitor amp" feature makes both the LCD and EVF useful in dim lighting. The A1 has a sharp 7X zoom lens, which gives you great flexibility, with 28mm wide and 200mm tele ends. Full manual controls (and then some), support for external flashes, and the optical DiMAGE Capture software will make serious shooters very happy. The A1's body is very well built (except for the CF slot door), and it feels like a professional camera. And did I mention the stellar battery life?
Sound nice? Well, I haven't mentioned the biggest new feature of them all: Minolta's new Anti-shake system, the world's first stabilized CCD. In situations where you'd normally get blurry images, the A1 will still take sharp pictures. Throw in the manual controls and tracking autofocus modes and you've got a great camera for shooting sporting events.
Downsides are few and far between. The biggest thing (that also plagued the 7-series) is that the A1 is a complex piece of machinery. A full read-through of the manual is a requirement before can take advantage of all its features. The second complaint is the flimsy plastic door over the memory card slot. Finally, the included 16MB is way too small, and the A1's price is a little on the high side.
If you're looking for a serious digital camera with all the trimmings, you'll want to take a close look at the DiMAGE A1.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Other cameras worth considering include the Canon Digital Rebel and PowerShot G5, Fuji FinePix S7000, HP Photosmart 945, Nikon Coolpix 5400 and 5700, Olympus C-750UZ and C-5060WZ, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717 and DSC-F828.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DiMAGE A1 and its competitors before you buy!
Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our photo gallery!
Want a second opinion? How about a few more?
Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to email@example.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
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