Upping the ante from the a100, Sony has launched the a700 into that premium brand category that the Nikon D300, Pentax K10D and Canon EOS 40D all seek to occupy.
Sony a700 Specifications
- Sensor type: 12.2Mp Exmore CMOS
- Lens mount: Sony mount, compatible with Minolta A-type bayonet mount
- Image size: 4288x2856 pixels
- Colour spaces: AdobeRGB, sRGB
- Colour temperature: 2500-9900K
- AF system: 11 point, single shot, auto, continuous, direct manual focus
- Eye-Start AF: On/off selection
- Metering: Centre weighted, spot and multi-segment
- ISO range: 100-3200. Up to ISO6400 through menu
- Flash: Built in, GN 12, PC synch terminal
- Shutter speed: 30-1/8000secs
- Frame rate: 5fps for 18 RAW shots, 25 compress RAW, 12 cRAW+JPEG, 12 Extra fine JPEG
- LCD screen: 3in. (922k DOTS not pixels!)
- Interaces: Video, PC Synch, USB 2.0, HDMI type C
- Weight: 690g without batteries, cards etc.
1. Rear control wheel. There's on on the front as well.
2. SteadyShot anti-shake system, built into the body.
3. Control thumbstick, used to navigate menus and set focus point.,
4. User-specified function button and custom settings contol.
5. Auto-Exposure lock button with selector for spot, zone and CW metering.
6. Bright, clear optical viewfinder over large 3in. LCD packed with info.
7. Mode selection dial.
8. Easy to spot on/off slider.
9. Menu activation, display simplifier, also playback and delete buttons.
Sony a700 Build and handling
The first thing that is apparent is that the a700 is a light camera. As it's built from a magnesium alloy, so it should be, but this is Olympus-proportions in terms of weight, so should be considered alongside those camera. Where it betters the Olympus cameras is that it has an excellent hand grip and feels really good to hold in the hand and use. There's no top plate LCD, instead all the shooting info appears on the rear, large LCD, like the Nikon D40x. If you find this display messy, and I did, the amount of info displayed can be reduced and the text size increased, making it far cleaner to read. As it is, the top of the right side of the camera, has a flat feel to it, rather like the Pentax K10D, but overall ergonomics are actually better. Sony are placing the camera just above the Canon 40D and below the Nikon D300 - the D200 replacement, and it feels, in terms of build and handling, far closer to the Canon, and not as robust or professional as the D200/D300 franchise.
Now, a quick word here about the quoted resolution of the LCD screen. Sony has specifically stated that this is 922k DOTS not pixels. There are red, green and blue dots, each of which carry only a single colour and combine to form the output. We'll look into this when the review sample comes in.
Compared to the a100 and consequently the Canon EOS 350D, it feels much bigger, robust and has a quality finish. Aesthetically, it's more like a hybrid of the Nikon D40x and the Pentax K10D. It also edges towards Pentax K10D territory by offering seals that are said to be dust and moisture resistant. Note that's moisture, it isn't actually waterproof or splashproof.
The optical viewfinder is excellent, that can be said right off. It's large and bright and works a treat. There are two selection wheels, one at the front, one at the back, thank god, and both are responsive and sturdy. The mode selection dial is also well finished and solid. Meanwhile, the rear LCD is large, bright and highly detailed.
Sony a700 Modes and features
There's a feature carry over from the a100 that you may love, or hate. It's the eye sensitive AF feature. When the camera is brought up to the face, the rear LCD automatically dims and with the feature on, the AF kicks in, overriding any settings for single shot focusing. So, if you focus, hold down the fire button to lock it, look up and then back to the viewfinder, with this feature on, the a700 will refocus again. Personally, I found it annoying and turned it off. Fair play to Sony for making it optional, if you like, it use, if not, ditch it.
This flexibility also extends to how various buttons and features on the back of the camera work. Not only can you change how buttons work and what they do, up to 26 photographic settings in fact, you can save also save configurations as presets for specific situations.
For fans of image stabilization, there's a large button on the back that turns it on and off. This is built into the body and is reckoned to be better than that of the a100. The good news then is that you benefit from using it, no matter which lens is on the camera.
Previously, if you wanted to use studio flash with Sony, you were on to a hiding to nothing. That's been rectified, there's a PC synch terminal and the hotshoe now smartly detects voltage polarity and can reverse it automatically.
Dirt cleaning off the sensor was something of an issue with the a100 so it was interesting to see whether Sony were going to add to this. Short answer, no. Same system as the a100 so we'll be testing that out when we get the final review camera.
Storage now has a choice. You can stick with the cursed proprietary MemoryStick format, though this is MS pro-HG which offers transfer rates up to 30Mb/s and looks more like an SD card every day. Or you can use the standard CompactFlash II format, so if you're coming from another format that uses them, at least they won't need to be traded in. Sony themselves have a high speed, 45M/s, or 300x, CF card coming soon for use with the camera.
Everyone has gone HD these days - well a lot of people anyway, so those manufacturers with one foot in the TV world are working hard to integrate their appliances. Sony are no exception, so as well as the flaccid resolution of the Video out socket, there's also a super sexy HDMI output offering up to 1080p, full HD resolution. Now, here's an extra feature, the pictures created by the a700 also contain a PhotoTV version - in other words a 1920x1080 pixel widescreen format one or a 1618x1080 pixel 4:3 aspect ratio one, depending on what aspect you are shooting in. When connected to a Sony Bravia HD TV, this PhotoTV image would be displayed, showing stunning detail over a standard HD image display. I saw this in practice and it certainly looked impressive. Sony also stated that this PhotoTV image file cannot be seen on its own so I asked Paul Genge of Sony: The photoTV HD image - as you can't see it, is it a description of a version of the full image that only appears when connected to a Bravia TV, rather than an extra image itself?
Paul replied, "My understanding is that it is an actual image embedded in the full size image."
I queried this point out that it was adding almost a 2Mp image to the file. What about the size and shooting speed?
Paul answered, "Our engineers have worked hard to ensure it has minimal impact on file size and performance."
Sony a700 Performance
Focussing is fast though perhaps not as fast as you might think. By this I mean that as soon as the fire button is pressed to focus, the system whizzes very quickly to roughly the right area, but then performs a second AF pass to actually lock onto what you are aiming at. It was good though, and seemed quite accurate and nippy. The focus point system can be set to use just one, user controlled point, so that the thumbstick on the back is used to select which one. Minor bugbear here, there central point has a box shape and is easy to spot if you'll excuse then pun, the other points have small vertical lines and are actually hard to see in the first place, never mind when they glow red to say they are locking onto something.
Shooting speed is good, with up to 5fps, but we'll need to check this out fully to see whether it actually manages to sustain that because with the PhotoTV image being welded in, there may be performance issues worth looking at.
There's a dynamic range enhancement feature that sounds pretty good. I asked Paul Genge about this, wondering if it was a Sony rival to the Fujifilm S5 Pro 400% wide tonal range mode. Paul started explaining about the 5 different power settings before I nailed him down by asking whether it actually extended the dynamic range or not. "No," he replied, "it brightens the shadows in certain areas and balances the contrast."
ISO ranges are always news, and with details of Nikon's D300 decision to start with ISO200, what did Sony have to offer? Well, the standard range is 100-3200 with 1/3rd increments, so that's quite standard and good at this price point. However, there are also further options in the menu to boost this to ISO6400 I asked Sony's Paul Genge about the noise and quality issues this entailed and whether this was why those higher settings weren't on the ISO button. He replied, "'Beyond ISO1600 we can't control the noise. Those modes are there if you need them but may only suit certain types of photography. They might improve certain types in fact."
Sony a700 Verdict
Well you'll have to wait for the extensive review of the Sony a700 for our final ratings but the early, hands on testing was promising. One feature that wasn't very clever was that there are two memory card type slots but the camera didn't automatically detect which one was being used. It was set in the depths of the menu system - something Sony was very keen to avoid with all the other settings. This was brought to Sony's attention at the press event and they promised to fix this with a firmware update. When we do our review, we'll check to see if this has been implemented.
Other than that, the addition of a much higher spec DSLR, with a faster shooting speed, tenacious AF, better image quality and high resolution certainly adds another string to the Sony bow. For owners of the a100, it'll be on the Sony roster for another 6 months before being discontinued, though Sony wouldn't confirm that any more were still being made. Meanwhile of course, there's another Sony on the way, quite possibly a full-frame model to sit above the a700. For now though, the a700 looks like it's capable of giving certainly Canon, Pentax and Olympus a hard time.
The Sony Alpha 700 is priced at around £568.99 and can be purchased from Warehouse Express:
The Sony Alpha 700.