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DCRP Review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A100  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: June 5, 2006
Last Updated: June 2, 2012

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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:

  • 10.2 Megapixel APS-C-sized CCD sensor
  • Dual mode dust reduction system: dust resistant coating over the sensor plus a dust "shake off" when powered on or off
  • Higher resolution LCD display
  • New "Bionz" image processor and Dynamic Range Optimizer (a hardware solution)
  • Uses Sony lithium-ion battery
  • Support for Memory Stick Duo cards via included adapter

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:

  • The 10.2 effective Megapixel Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 camera body
  • F3.5 - F5.6, 18-70mm Sony zoom lens [lens kit only]
  • NP-FM55H lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Memory Stick Duo CompactFlash adapter
  • Body cap
  • Accessory shoe cap
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring software and drivers
  • Fold-out Read This First guide + 158 page manual

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):

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon Digital Rebel XT 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 in. 46.3 cu in. 485 g
Canon EOS-20D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.8 in. 67 cu in. 685 g
Canon EOS-30D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in. 69.4 cu in. 700 g
Konica Maxxum 5D 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.6 in. 47.7 cu in. 590 g
Konica Maxxum 7D 5.1 x 4.2 x 3.1 in. 66.4 cu in. 760 g
Nikon D200 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 in. 74 cu in. 830 g
Nikon D70s 5.5 x 4.4 x 3.1 in. 75 cu in. 600 g
Nikon D80 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 cu in. 585 g
Olympus EVOLT E-330 5.5 x 3.4 x 2.8 in. 52.4 cu in. 550 g
Olympus EVOLT E-500 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 435 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 5.7 x 3.4 x 3.1 in. 60.1 cu in. 530 g
Pentax K100D 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.8 in. 51.4 cu in. 560 g
Samsung Digimax GX-1S 4.9 x 3.6 x 2.6 in. 45.9 cu in. 505 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g

As you can see, the A100 is right in the middle of the pack in terms of size and weight.

Let's start our tour of the camera now.

Here's the front of the DSLR-A100 without a lens. The lens mount here is called an Alpha mount (which isn't a new name, incidentally), and it supports most Konica Minolta lenses, plus all the new Sony ones. As with the Maxxum 5D and 7D, there's a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio at work here, so whatever lens you attach will have a field-of-view equivalent to 1.5 times what it says on the lens.

Sony has inherited Konica Minolta's anti-shake system, which is now called Super SteadyShot. This is a CCD-shift style system, which moves the sensor itself instead of a lens element. That means that you'll get image stabilization on nearly every lens you attach to the camera. Image stabilization systems compensate for "camera shake", which can blur your photos (especially at the telephoto end of the lens). By reducing this shake, you'll be able to use slower shutter speeds than you could on an unstabilized camera.

I have this examples for you:

Super SteadyShot Off

Super SteadyShot On

Both of the photos above were taken with a a shutter speed of 1/6 second. As you can see, the SteadyShot feature did its job, allowing for a sharp photo at a shutter speed that probably wouldn't be used otherwise. Do remember that image stabilization can't work miracles. It will allow you to use slower shutter speeds, but it won't stop a moving subject or let you take really long exposures without a tripod.

The SteadyShot feature also does double-duty as a dust reduction system. When the camera is turned on, the camera "shakes" the CCD quickly to knock any errant dust off the sensor. In addition, there's a special coating over the CCD that helps to repel dust. Now I can't tell you how well the system works, but I didn't have any trouble with dust during my weeks with the camera -- unlike most other D-SLRs that I've tested.
[Paragraph added 8/12/06]

Directly above the lens mount is the pop-up flash, which is released manually. The flash has a guide number of 12 (at ISO 100), which in layman's terms means about 1.4 - 8.6 meters at ISO 100, F2.8. Other D-SLRs have guide numbers of GN 13 for the Canon Rebel XT and Olympus E-500, GN 11 for the Nikon D70s, and GN 15 on the Pentax K100 (albeit at ISO 200).

Like many D-SLRs, the A100 uses the flash as an AF-assist lamp (just remember to raise it first). By default the camera will take a flash photo, but if you put down the flash after focusing is complete you can avoid this.

Just to the right of the lens mount is the lens release button. To the lower-left of the lens mount is the depth-of-field preview button. Moving to the top left we find the self-timer lamp.

While the A100's LCD is the same size as on the Maxxum 5D and 7D, its resolution is higher. This screen packs 230,000 pixels, so everything is nice and sharp. In case you're unfamiliar with digital SLRs, I offer you this reminder: the LCD is used only for reviewing photos after they are taken, and for operating menus. If you want a live view D-SLR then you'll want to look at D-SLRs from Olympus and Panasonic.

When you're taking pictures the LCD displays the information screen you see above. There's no LCD info display on the top of the camera, so this is the only place to get this kind of data. If you've seen the Maxxum 5D or 7D then this screen will look awfully familiar -- it's basically the same thing. Like with that camera, the information on the LCD rotates when you're shooting vertically.

Above the LCD is the A100's optical viewfinder, which shows 95% of the frame. Underneath the field-of-view you'll find exposure information, shots remaining in the buffer, and a "shake meter" showing how stable the camera is. The fewer the "shake bars", the more stable the camera, which means that your photo is more likely to be sharp. A diopter correction knob on the top of the viewfinder will focus what you're looking at.

An "eye start" sensor on the viewfinder will activate the autofocus system when you put your eye against it, which makes shooting even faster (the Maxxum 5D and 7D had this feature as well). I did find this feature to be a bit annoying, as the camera would often try to focus when you were holding the camera against your body (when not using it).

To the left of the viewfinder is the power switch. On the opposite side you'll find the exposure compensation / aperture adjustment and AE lock / flash slow sync buttons. The exposure compensation range is the usual -2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments. These two buttons are also used for the playback zoom feature.

Moving now to the four buttons to the left of the LCD. These are for:

  • Menu
  • Display (toggles what is shown on the info screen above)
  • Delete photo
  • Playback mode

Jumping to the opposite side of the LCD, we find the four-way controller. This is mainly used for menu navigation and focus point selection, but it's also another way to activate the autofocus system (by pressing the center button).

Below the four-way controller is where you'll plug in the optional wired remote control. To the right of that is the Super SteadyShot on/off switch. You may want to turn the IS system off when you're using a tripod (as an example).

There's plenty more to see on top of the DSLR-A100, and I'll start with that dial on the left side of the photo. This dial lets you quickly adjust these settings:

Feature Description
Metering - Mode (Multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot metering)

- Mode (Auto, flash on, rear sync, wireless)
- Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)

Focus - AF Area (Wide, center, focus area selection)
- AF mode (Single, DMF, automatic, continuous)
ISO / Zone matching - Setting (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, Lo 80, Hi 200)
White balance - Mode (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, flash, color temperature, custom)
D-Range optimizer - Setting (Off, standard, advanced)
Color / DEC

- Preset (Standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, night view, black & white, Adobe RGB)
- Contrast (-2 to +2, 1-step increments)
- Saturation (-2 to +2, 1-step increments)
- Sharpness (-2 to +2, 1-step increments)

I'd like to explain a few of those items before we continue. I'll start with the focus modes. When you set the AF area to "focus area selection", you can use the four-way controller to manually select one of nine focus points. The direct manual focus feature lets you manually adjust the focus distance after the camera focuses automatically.

The two unusual items in the ISO menu are for "zone matching". Low 80 is for "low key" scenes, which are made up of dark tones and colors. High 200 is for just the opposite: scenes with light tones and colors ("high key").

Not surprisingly, the A100 has a full suite of white balance controls. There are auto and preset modes (of course), plus you can set the color temperature manually (from 2500K to 9900K) or use a white or gray card for custom WB. You can also "fine tune" each of the preset settings by ±3, except for fluorescent, which is -2 to +4.

The dynamic range optimizer uses on-board hardware to improve dynamic range. In standard DRO mode the camera automatically adjusts the brightness and contrast of the image. In advanced mode it goes through your photo area-by-area, adjusting contrast and color tone. Processing the image takes a fraction of a second, so shot-to-shot times drop a bit when you're using the Advanced mode.

There are some restrictions about when the DRO feature can be used that need to be mentioned. It cannot be used when shooting in RAW or RAW+JPEG mode, when the shooting mode is set to "M", or while using center-weighted or spot metering.

So does DRO actually work? Well, yes, but not consistently. I've got two examples for you, and you can click on the thumbnails to see a larger view of the image. If you're really hardcore you can also view the full size images by clicking on the link below the thumbnail.

Full Size Image

DRO Standard
Full Size Image

DRO Advanced
Full Size Image

This first example is a great one for showing how sometimes Standard DRO just makes things worse (it's on by default, by the way). The original shot is pretty contrasty, and a lot of the trees are in the shadows. The DRO Standard mode brightens the trees and shadows but at the expense of the sky, which gets blown out. However, the DRO Advanced feature gives you the best of both worlds: more shadow detail and a well-exposed sky.

Full Size Image

DRO Standard
Full Size Image

DRO Advanced
Full Size Image

This next example shows when the DRO Advanced setting works a little too well. Once again there's a lot of stuff in the shadows (I picked these scenes for a reason), and the DRO Standard setting brings out a little more detail than having DRO off entirely. When you first see the Advanced sample you'll probably say "wow, that's amazing!" -- that's what I said at least. However, after thinking about it, I realized that the scene is actually too bright -- almost unnatural. The image is also noticeably noisier than the other two samples. So yes, you really can have too much of a good thing.

So what's the bottom line here? In most situations I'd probably keep DRO set to Standard. If you're in a situation with a lot of contrast then it's worth giving the Advanced mode a try. If you don't like photo you can always take it again -- that is why you bought a digital camera, right?

Back to the tour now. To the left of the control dial is the hot shoe, with its plastic cover removed. Like on the Maxxum 5D/7D, this is a proprietary shoe, working only with Minolta and select Sony external flashes. These flashes can also be used wirelessly instead of having to live on the camera. As far as I can tell there is no way to use third party flashes with this camera.

Moving to the right we find the mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Auto mode Fully automatic, some settings locked
Program mode Still automatic, but with full menu access. A Program Shift feature lets you choose between several predetermined aperture/shutter speed combinations.
Aperture Priority mode You pick the aperture and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices will depend on lens you're using. For the kit lens the range is F3.5 - F36.
Shutter Priority mode You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Full Manual (M) mode You pick the aperture and shutter speed, same values as above. A bulb mode is also available which allows for exposures as long as 4 hours
Night view / night portrait Scene modes
Sports action

As you can see, the A100 has full manual exposure controls -- just as you'd expect on a digital SLR. There are also several scene modes available for those who just want to point and shoot.

To the right of the mode dial we find the drive mode button, which has these options: single-shot, continuous, self-timer (2 or 10 secs), exposure bracketing (single or continuous), and white balance bracketing.

In continuous mode I was able to take an unlimited number of JPEGs at about 2.8 frames/second using a high speed CF card. When shooting in RAW mode, the camera started to slow down after about eleven shots. It doesn't take long for the camera to write the sequence to the memory card, so the RAW shooting speeds increase fairly quickly.

The exposure bracketing mode takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between shots can be 0.3 or 0.7EV. White balance bracketing works in the same way, taking three shots in a row, with each shot having a slightly different white balance setting. In "low" mode the interval is 10 mired, while in "high" mode it's 20 mired.

At the top-right of the photo you'll find the shutter release button and the control dial (which you'll use for adjusting manual exposure settings).

The only things to see on this side of the A100 are the focus switch (auto or manual) and the port for the optional AC adapter.

On the opposite side is where you'll find the CompactFlash slot and USB + A/V port (one port serves both functions). These items are protected by a plastic door of average quality. In order to access the USB + A/V ports you must first open the door, which is kind of annoying.

The DSLR-A100 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. The door covering the battery compartment is of decent quality.

The included NP-FM55 battery is shown as well.

Using the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100

Record Mode

The A100 is ready to start shooting less than one second after you flip the power switch.

Autofocus speeds were excellent, as you'd expect. Typically the camera took 0.1 - 0.2 seconds to lock focus, and only a bit longer in more difficult situations. If the camera had to use the flash as an AF-assist lamp it almost always locked focus -- and quickly.

Shutter lag was not a problem, even at slower shutter speeds, just as you'd expect from a D-SLR.

Shot-to-shot delays were practically nonexistent. You can shoot as fast as you can compose -- or at least until you hit the buffer limit (which is nearly impossible when shooting JPEGs).

You can delete a photo right after it is taken by pressing -- surprise -- the delete photo button.

Here's a look at the image quality options available on the A100:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 1GB CF card
3872 x 2592
RAW + JPEG 18.9 MB 51
RAW 14.8 MB 65
Fine 4.0 MB 242
Standard 2.6 MB 377
2896 x 1936
Fine 2.3 MB 419
Standard 1.5 MB 640
1920 x 1280
Fine 1.1 MB 867
Standard 765 KB 1262

Not surprisingly the A100 supports the RAW image format. You can take a RAW image alone, or with a 10M/Fine quality JPEG as well.

The camera saves images with a name of DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001-9999. The camera will maintain the file numbering, even as you erase/replace memory cards.

Let's talk about the menu system now.

The menus on the A100 look a whole lot like those found on Minolta cameras. In fact, only the color scheme is different. There are four menus here: shooting, playback, custom, and setup, and each of those menus has a few pages worth of options. I'm going to cover three of the four menus now, saving the playback one for later. Here's what's in the record menu:

  • Image size (see chart)
  • Quality (see chart)
  • Instant playback (Off, 2, 5, 10 sec) - post-shot review
  • Noise reduction (on/off) - for long exposures
  • Eye-start AF (on/off) - described earlier; I actually prefer turning it off
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Flash control (ADI, preflash TTL) - the former uses both a preflash as well as distance info from the lens
  • Flash default (Auto, fill flash)
  • Bracket order (Normal/under/over, under/normal/over)
  • Reset

Next up is the custom menu:

  • Priority setup (AF, release) - whether the camera will take a picture without focus lock
  • Focus hold button (Focus hold, DOF preview) - for use with certain lenses
  • AEL button (AE hold, AE toggle, spot AE hold, spot AE toggle) - define what this button does
  • Control dial setup (Shutter speed, aperture) - what the dial adjusts; you can set this for manual and program shift modes
  • Exposure compensation setup (Ambient & flash, ambient only)
  • AF illuminator (on/off) - remember, the flash has to popped up in order to use this
  • Card shutter lock (on/off) - whether you can take a picture without a memory card
  • Lens shutter lock (on/off) - same as above, but for lenses
  • AF area setup (Off, 0.3, 0.6 secs) - how long the focus points are shown on the viewfinder
  • Monitor display (Auto, manual) - whether the info display on the LCD is shown when you're using the optical viewfinder
  • Record display (Auto rotate, horizontal) - whether the record display rotates when you turn the camera vertically)
  • Playback display (Auto rotate, manual rotate) - automatically rotate portrait photos

The final menu section to cover is the setup menu, which has these options:

  • LCD brightness (1 to 5)
  • Transfer mode (Mass storage, PTP)
  • Video output (NTSC, PAL)
  • Audio signals (on/off)
  • Language
  • Date/time set
  • File number memory (on/off, reset)
  • Folder name (Standard, date)
  • Select/Create folder
  • LCD backlight (5, 10, 30 secs, 1 min)
  • Power save (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 mins)
  • Menu selection memory (on/off) - remembers what menu section was last opened
  • Delete confirmation (Yes, no) - when "yes" you can delete photos with one less step
  • Clean CCD
  • Reset

Okay, let's dive into our photos tests now. With the exception of the night test shot, all of these photos were taken using the 18 - 70 mm kit lens. The night shot was taken with the F4.0-5.6, 75 - 300 mm Sony lens.

The DSLR-A100 did a perfect job with our standard macro test subject. Colors are accurate (and nicely saturated), and the subject has the "smooth" look that you'd expect from a D-SLR. The camera's custom white balance feature nailed my studio lights perfectly. I also like how the camera tells you the color temperature that it's using when you're in custom WB mode.

The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you're using. For the 18-70 kit lens it's 38 cm. If you want to get even closer than you may be interested in the F2.8, 50 mm macro lens ($480), which drops the minimum distance to 20 cm.

Let's talk about the night test shots now. When I was going through my first set of test shots I was not impressed. Confused, I thought that maybe I had accidentally turned down the color depth on my computer, as the night sky had an annoying "gradient" effect to it. After viewing a page in Phil Askey's exhaustive A100 review I discovered that this is caused by the camera's dark-frame noise reduction system, so I went back out to Treasure Island and tried again.

Night shot with noise reduction -- notice the gradient in the sky

Night shot without noise reduction - much more natural

Sure enough, the noise reduction feature created this unusual-looking sky, as the examples above illustrate. So, I turned off the NR feature and reshot all of the night photos. And here they are:

The night shot turned out fairly well, though the famous San Francisco fog has given the image a hazy, brownish look. The camera took in plenty of light, thanks to its full manual control over shutter speed. There are some fairly strong areas of purple fringing here, and you can reduce this annoyance by closing down the aperture. The scene is also on the soft side, as well, and I think the fog actually made things a little worse. You will also see a few hot pixels in the full size image, which isn't surprising, as the noise reduction feature is turned off.

There are two ISO tests in this review, and the first one uses the night scene above. Here we go:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

The ISO 200 shot doesn't look too much different than the ISO 100 one. At ISO 400 some noise starts to appears, with some loss of detail. That loss of detail becomes more prominent at ISO 800, and at ISO 1600 they're just about all wiped out. Something else to notice is the sudden change in color saturation at the ISO 1600 setting -- you'll see this again in a moment.

Since conditions vary so much night-to-night, it's tough to compare these results with those from other D-SLRs. If you want to do that you'll want to compare the studio test scene below, not to mention the sample photos in the gallery.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 70 mm kit lens. If you take a look at this photo you'll see what it does in real life: makes straight lines appear to be curved.

While the test chart shows vignetting, or dark corners, I did not see any in my real world photos. Corner blurriness wasn't much of a problem, either.

I don't expect a big camera with a pop-up flash to have a redeye problem, and what do you know, the DSLR-A100 passed our redeye test with flying colors!

Above is the test scene that I'll use for the second of the two ISO tests in this review. This scene is shot in my studio using two 600W quartz studio lamps. You may want to compare the results here to those from cameras like the Canon Digital Rebel XT and EOS-30D, the Nikon D50 (whose shots are admittedly overexposed), the Olympus E-330 and the Samsung Digimax GX-1S (also known as the Pentax *ist DS2).

While the crops below give you an idea about the noise (and color) differences at the various ISO choices, looking at the full size images is always a good idea.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 1600 (levels adjusted to match other crops)

Being a digital SLR it's not surprising that noise levels are very low all the way through ISO 400. At ISO 800 you start to pick up some noticeable grain, but the photo is absolutely usable, even at larger print sizes. Two things happen at ISO 1600: one, noise levels increase dramatically, and two, exposure and color saturation both drop through the floor. I've seen the same thing on some of Sony's 2006 Cyber-shot cameras, so I guess they share a similar noise reduction system. Below the ISO 1600 crop I provided a brightened version of that image, which is closer in exposure to the other shots.

So how do noise levels on the A100 compare to other D-SLRs? Up through ISO 400 they're all about the same. At ISO 800 and above most of the competition starts to pull away -- especially the Canon models. In addition, only the Sony has the exposure and saturation changes between ISO 800 and 1600. If you plan on doing a lot of high ISO shooting this is certainly something to keep in mind.

With very slight changes in framing, the A100 produced two photos with noticeably different exposures

Overall the DSLR-A100 produced very good quality photos. Exposure was usually good, though I did notice some noticeable differences in exposure when I took the same shot several times (see example above). Colors were spot-on, with nice saturation. Noise was virtually non-existent at lower ISOs, only becoming noticeable at ISO 800 and above (in good light, of course). Purple fringing levels will vary depending on what lens you're using, so it's hard to give a definitive answer about that. I certainly saw some of it with both of the lenses that I tested, though.

Images straight out of the camera are on the soft side (typical of D-SLRs), and if that bugs you, it may be worth turning up the in-camera sharpening a notch or two. To see the effect of increased sharpness settings it's worth taking a look at the very last photo in the gallery.

I invite you now to have a look at our extensive DSLR-A100 photo gallery. If you can do it, it's worth printing some of the photos at the same sizes that you'd use yourself. Once you've done all that you'll be able to decide for yourself if the A100's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

No digital SLRs have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The DSLR-A100 has a pretty standard playback mode. Basic playback options include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll (aka playback zoom). The camera is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.

You can easily rotate photos by pressing the "down" button on the four-way controller. There's no way to resize photos on the camera though.

One feature that was brought over from the Minolta side is the ability to select photos that you wanted deleted, instead of just one or all of them. This is certainly a handy thing to have, in my opinion.

By default, the camera 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 very quickly, moving from one image to the next instantly.

How Does it Compare?

With more than a little help from Konica Minolta, Sony has successfully entered the digital SLR arena with their Alpha DSLR-A100. With a high resolution 10.2 Megapixel sensor, built-in image stabilization and dust reduction systems, and super-fast performance, the A100 gives the competition a run for their money. Despite a few annoyances, the A100 offers quite a lot -- and it earns my recommendation.

The DSLR-A100 is a midsize D-SLR that closely resembles its forefather, the Minolta Maxxum 5D. Build quality is excellent, and the camera feels very solid in the hand. Thanks to a substantial right hand grip, the camera is easy to hold. There are a fair amount of buttons and dials on the camera, which take some getting used to, but they do allow you to quickly change commonly used settings. The camera has a 10.2 Megapixel CCD -- reportedly the same one as in the new Nikon D80 -- which is more than what you'll find on other entry-level D-SLRs. That CCD is mounted on a plate that can actually shift to counteract the effects of "camera shake", allowing you to use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. In addition, Sony has adapted the system to "shake" dust off the sensor, and judging by the lack of dust in my photos, I'd say that it works.

The A100 features a 2.5" LCD display that's sharp and bright. Do remember that you'll be composing all your photos with the optical viewfinder, as the LCD is for menus and reviewing photos only. The camera uses the same Alpha mount as Minolta's SLRs, and you'll be able to use most of the legacy lenses alongside the new lenses that Sony is/will be offering. The A100 supports the usual array of D-SLR accessories, though it's worth noting that the hot shoe only supports KM/Sony external flashes, and that a battery grip is not available.

The DSLR-A100 has plenty of features for both beginners and enthusiasts. If you just want to point-and-shoot, the A100 has several scene modes, plus a standard fully automatic mode. If you want manual controls, naturally they're all here, from shutter speed to white balance. The unique Dynamic Range Optimizer brightens up your images, though I found that the results differed greatly depending on your subject. The Standard mode brightens this up a bit, with Advanced mode going far beyond that. Sometimes that was desirable, other times it's not. My advice is to shoot with DRO set to Standard most of the time, but it's certainly worth experimenting with the Advanced setting when the scene could use it. Do note that the DRO feature is disabled when shooting in RAW, full manual mode, or when the metering is set to anything but matrix. Speaking of RAW: yes, the A100 supports this format, and the bundled software (for both Mac and Windows) does a good job at letting you adjust the various image properties.

Camera performance was superb. While the A100 doesn't start up as fast as the Canon and Nikon D-SLRs, this is due to the dust reduction system doing its thing. I'd rather wait a second longer to have dust-free photos, but that's just me. The A100 focuses very quickly, even at the telephoto end of the lens. When the flash is popped up (which is done manually) it will be used as an AF-assist lamp, and it helps the camera lock focus even in dark rooms. Shutter lag was not an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal. The A100's continuous shooting mode is a bit slower than advertised (2.8 fps versus 3 fps), but I could keep shooting JPEGs indefinitely, and I was able to take over eleven RAW shots in a row before the camera had to slow down a bit. Like most (but not all) D-SLRs, the A100 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

Photo quality was excellent in almost all respects. The A100 took well-exposed photos 99% of the time, though the metering system was a little weird on a few occasions (see the example in the photo quality discussion). Colors were accurate and saturated, and vignetting (dark corners) was not a problem. I did notice some purple fringing with both of the lenses that I tested (which includes the 18 - 70 mm kit lens), as well. Noise levels are low until you get to ISO 800 and above, at which point the competition (especially Canon) starts to pull away. In addition, I noticed a substantial change in exposure and color when I went from ISO 800 to 1600. Staying with the subject of noise, you might want to turn off the long exposure noise reduction system, as it can produce a "gradient effect" in your night shots.

I pretty much covered all of the A100's negatives in the previous paragraphs. As you can see, there aren't too many, which is why I recommend the camera. So which D-SLR should you drop your $1000 on? Well, if you already have Minolta lenses then the A100 is a no-brainer. If you've got a collection of Canon, Nikon, or Pentax lenses then I'd probably stick with your respective manufacturer. If you're just starting out the DSLR-A100 is an intriguing choice. You get high resolution, image stabilization, dust reduction, and robust performance, plus a pretty good selection of lenses.

Since the competition is also very capable, ultimately you'll need to choose the camera which you like to use the most. That means that you should get your hands on the DSLR-A100 and at least some of the cameras listed below before you buy!

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Built-in image stabilizer means every lens you use gets the IS advantage
  • Dust reduction system (which is a big deal, in my opinion)
  • Large, sharp 2.5" LCD display
  • Well built, easy to hold and operate
  • Super fast performance
  • Full manual controls, as you'd expect
  • Support for RAW image format; decent processing software included
  • Dynamic Range Optimizer works -- sometimes too well
  • No redeye to be found
  • All the expandability you'd expect from a digital SLR (except maybe for flashes)
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • A bit noisier than the competition (especially Canon) at ISO 800 and above
  • Color saturation/exposure changes when ISO goes from 800 to 1600
  • Long exposure noise reduction produces gradient effect in night scenes
  • Metering system was flaky on rare occasions
  • Proprietary hot shoe
  • DRO feature not usable in RAW, full manual modes, or when metering set to center or spot
  • No Mac image browser included (though iPhoto works fine)

Some other entry-level D-SLRs worth considering include the Canon Digital Rebel XT and EOS-30D, Nikon D50 and D80, Olympus EVOLT E-330 and E-500, Pentax K100D, and the Samsung Digimax GX-1S.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSLR-A100 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out our extensive photo gallery to see how the A100's photos look!

Want a second opinion?

You'll find an extensive review of this camera at Digital Photography Review. If that's still not enough, you can read more at CNET.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question 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.

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