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Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR Review

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR Review - Next up in the autumn release schedule of DSLRs is the 12Mp offering from Sony. With its Exmor Sensor and BIONZ processor it�s considerably more advanced than Duncan Evans� feeble organic brain.

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Category : Digital SLRs
Product : Sony DSLR-A700
Price : £1,099
Rating :
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Having paddled in the shallow end of the DSLR pool Sony have got out the Speedos and jumped right in with the A700, throwing their weight around with a rugged build, 12Mp resolution, 5fps shooting speed and an LCD so packed with pixels it's like a fat man at an all you can eat diner.

Sony DSLR-A700 Sony DSLR-A700 Specifications:

  • Sensor: CMOS - 12.24Mp
  • Image Size: 4288x2856 pixels
  • Lens: Sony α Mount, Compatible with Minolta A-type bayonet mount
  • Focus: Auto/Manual
  • ISO range: ISO100-6400
  • Shutter speed: 30-1/8000sec plus bulb
  • Exposure: Program AE/AP/SP/M
  • Metering: Multi Pattern/Centre Weighted/Spot
  • Monitor: 3.0in. TFT LCD
  • Movie Mode: No
  • Storage: Compact Flash (I/II), MS,
  • Batteries: NP-FM500H
  • Video Output: Yes
  • Size/Weight: 142x105x80 mm -690g
  • Transfer: USB 2.0

Rather fearlessly, Sony have priced the A700 with a RRP of £999 for the body or £1099 with the 18-70mm kit lens. That places it up against the 10Mp Canon EOS 40D which has a street price of £749 or £949 with an EF-S 17-85mm f/4 lens and the forthcoming 12Mp Nikon D300 for £1299 body only. You can still get the 10Mp Nikon D200 for £799 and don't forget the 12Mp Fuji S5 Pro at £849 body, or the forthcoming Olympus E-3, which offers 10Mp at £1099 for the body, or £1499 with a 14-54mm (28-108mm field of view) Zuiko lens.

Sony DSLR-A700 Modes and features
A bit of something for everyone, that's the ethos here. The mode dial is on the left, wedged right in on its own, offering the standard PASM modes and then a selection of scene modes for beginners. There's night portrait, sunset, sports, macro, landscape and regular portrait. It has to be pointed out again, that selecting the macro mode won't enable the camera to focus any closer - that's entirely dependent on the focusing distance of the lens being used. There's also a memory recall mode where a number of your configuration selections can be saved, ready for instant recall. Assuming you can remember what parameters you've saved and why of course.

Over on the top right side of the camera now is... very little actually. There's the sharply indented hand grip with the fire button and front wheel and then welcome to a world of black plastic that stretches on and on. Sony have decided not to have a top-mounted LCD plate because all the shooting information is on the rear LCD screen. Three implications of this: one is that there's now an acre of wasted space on top; two is that when looking at the buttons on the top, the camera now has to be flipped over to see the adjustments you are making and if you are adjusting a few things then it's like Homer throttling Bart; and three the rear LCD uses more battery power than a small monochrome top plate. In my book this makes the camera look cheaper, as the low-end DSLRs all use just the rear LCD. All the cameras it is competing against, like the Canon 40D, Nikon D200/D300 and Fuji S5, have top plates.

Sony DSLR-A700 The buttons on the top then cover exposure compensation, drive mode, White Balance and ISO rating - from ISO100 to 6400. A point to note here is that there's also a rear thumbwheel which will appeal to traditionalist, unlike the awkward combination of sticks and rotating wheels on the Canon 40D. The rear wheel can be custom configured to most of the functions, including the ones on the buttons on the top. I set this to exposure compensation which was very useful as it means there's no pressing of buttons, peering at the rear LCD or descending into menus to use it. I was tempted to assign ISO control to the rear wheel as well, but the choices are all yours.

The on/off slider is on the left side under the mode dial and is a straightforward control, unlike the Canon effort. Moving along there's the optical viewfinder with detectors underneath. Thankfully these detect when the camera is raised to your face and automatically dim the LCD screen underneath. Moving along there's the metering mode selection switch enabling a choice from zone, spot and centre weighted. In the centre of this is the Auto-Exposure Lock button. Press this and it locks the exposure reading until the fire button is half pressed to focus again and then it re-meters. Hold the button down though and it retains the lock through shooting. Combine this with exposure compensation on the back wheel and you have a really fast and flexible system for juggling the exposure around - if you know what you're doing of course. Next to this is a button that switches the camera to manual focus when it is held down. I like the idea of this, it enables a quick readjustment of the focus without fumbling for the main AF control button which is on the front near the lens. In dusk conditions, the focus can be easily adjusted.

There's not much else to look at on the back of the camera. The large 3in LCD has 900k dots - as has been discussed at length, these are individual dots that are capable of only rendering a red or a green or a blue colour, not all three. Down the side of this are buttons to activate the menu, change the display detail - both when shooting and on playback, delete images and activate playback. Over on the right is a thumbstick that is used for navigating the menus and general control functions. It's also used when the focusing system uses selectable points. Under here is the custom button for custom functions/ histograms on playback and the main function button. Pressing this allows control over most of the functions that are displayed on the rear screen. This is a good job, because in low light, you can't see the buttons on the top at all.

The functions that can be accessedSony DSLR-A700 are flash mode, exposure compensation, flash compensation, ISO, drive mode, colour mode, resolution and quality, white balance and dynamic range optimiser. This latter item sounds sexy, but it isn't a Fuji S5 in disguise. Turn the feature on and it will brighten the shadows on a picture. This is useful if you want a portrait with even lighting for example, or the scene has high contrast and you are shooting to preserve the highlights.

Pressing the menu button brings up half the selections that have already been covered and then some general setup options. For example, the viewfinder is set up so that when it is raised to the eye it automatically refocuses. You can, and I did, turn this feature off. There are features like noise reduction strength and when it can be applied, as well as custom configuring the wheels etc. The LCD also auto-rotates when it detects the camera is being used in portrait or landscape orientation. Nice in theory, but as there is no top LCD, the camera has to be tilted forwards to see the rear LCD, and when it is then rotated, the sensor can get confused over which way round you are using it. This can all be turned off in the setup menu.

On the front of the camera, down near the bottom of the lens is a small dial to set the focus options to cover single focus, automatic, continuous and manual. One feature that is hidden in the menus is the focus point system. While the D200/D300 has this on the body as a switch, on the A700 and the Canon 40D, you have to go into menu land to choose how the 11-point focus system is used, from individual, selectable points, to batches of points.

A couple of final points for this section. As well as the hotshoe which takes Minolta and Sony flashguns, there's a PC-sync socket for connecting wired studio flash. A remote control port, a DC power supply point and a standard video out and a HDMI output as well. As was discussed in the preview, this is a full 1080p HDMI output that will work on any HDTV and there is an embedded higher res image with each picture that can be displayed on Sony Bravia TVs only. As can be seen from the Performance tests, the memory overhead from the embedded image doesn't impact on performance.

Sony DSLR-A700 As far as lens mounts go, it's the Minolta A-type mount which will take both Sony and Minolta lenses. It has to be said though, that this is the area that the camera is weak in. It's all good and well saying it can use all these existing lenses if they are hard to get hold of because few people stock them any more. I had read a number of complaints about the availability of affordable second lenses for the Sony A100.

And finally, the camera features dust reduction - turn it on and off and the CCD is given a shake. This is much the same as the system on the A100, which was much-maligned. There's better muck catching though. Also, there's anti-shake technology built into the body - activated with a switch, which gives between 2.5EV and 4EV extra stops to play around with, though this is all dependent on how still you can hold the camera anyway.

Sony DSLR-A700 Build and handling
While the A700 isn't that much bigger than the A100, it has bulked up so that it's now Canon EOS 40D proportions. The build quality is good, it feels sturdy, as indeed it should for this price point. There are moisture and weather resistant seals, which means you should be able to get it safely into your camera bag if it starts raining, not that you can do underwater photography from north sea oil rigs. The handling is generally good, the fact that functions can be custom assigned make it smoother to use, though I personally don't like the absence of a top-mounted like plate, which makes so called chimping even more prevalent. That aside, everything else is easy to access and use, except perhaps the focusing options.

Sony DSLR-A700 flash options
The built in flash system has a Guide Number of 12 with a rough recycle time of 3secs. There's various modes available: auto, fill-flash, rear sync, slow sync and manual. Those are on the flash menu, on the other menus there are options for red eye removal and high speed sync in conjunction with external flash. The camera also has the Sony/Minolta hotshoe and a PC-sync terminal for studio flash. You can also set the camera to bracket with flash, though with that 3sec recycle time I hope the subject is sitting comfortably.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR Sony DSLR-A700 Performance
The good news is that the 5fps claimed continuous shooting speed is pretty much that. In our 10sec burst test it racked up 49 images which is as near as damn it. Not quite the Canon with its Uzi-like 6.5fps, but still plenty of semi-auto firepower. The focusing is interesting. In clear contrast areas it can focus and lock all in one motion which is quick. At other times it can take two passes to lock on and in low-contrast scenes, it will take three shuffles before declaring it's found what it was looking for. Where the focus point is too close to the camera it doesn't pointlessly shuffle around like a tramp looking for spare coins, it just makes one pass and then stops immediately.

In terms of shutter lag, it's negligible, at around 0.04secs with pre-focussing and metering lock and even with just having focussed and not locked the metering it's only 0.12secs, though that will cause you to miss shots at long focal lengths if you haven't already got the focus and metering locked. Also, if a photo opportunity presents itself the camera can turn on and shoot the picture, on manual focus, in under a second.

Looking at the colour check chart shows pretty lively results, even with the camera set to neutral. The A700 is more like the Canon 40D in this situation with a lively primary blue, a ruddy primary red and bright yellow. What I liked is that the skin tone colour, which is normally affected by a bright red primary, is spot on here. Even the green primary is quite light but well saturated. In fact, the colours across the board look good.

With that 12Mp resolution you can expect to get lots of detail in the shots, and that's the case here. With fine colour rendition as well, a lot of the pictures have a fine, smooth look to them. Particularly for portraits, this combines to give some very results. The only fly in the ointment is the sharpness. Now, the A700 has a kit lens, which will do a job but doesn't give the best results. Sony also sent us the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar DT 16-80mm lens which is better quality, and that's what we used for all the shots you can see here. Even so, the landscape shot, at f/22 for depth-of-field, isn't very sharp, and the f/8 shots, which is where the lens is sharpest, weren't sharp either. They were softer than the results from the Canon EOS 40D. Now before you all light torches and march on Sony HQ shouting "burn the monster," let's put this into perspective. Because the detail is smooth and fine they can be sharpened anyway and also, unless you're printing larger than A4, you are unlikely to be able to see any difference. For large prints though, I would expect to do some Photoshop work to get the images as sharp as I would like.

Sony DSLR-A700

The red primary is quite lively but happily doesn’t affect the skin tone mixture which is very accurate. Primary blue and green are both bright but well saturated. The colours across the board are strong and pleasing.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
What we’re looking for here is colour bleed, either from the sky into the leaves, or the leaves into the sky, because of the complex patterns. Good news is that there isn’t any, it’s all spot on.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
Very fine tonal gradation in the sky and the water in this shot – it’s very smooth, though there is some noise in the dark parts of the water.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR An ISO1250 shot that’s perfectly usable. You can see a little colour noise in what was very murky conditions, but this is fine as is, or for converting to mono.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
Very fine and even skin tones in the portrait shot. The image softness is welcome here. There is no noise or patchiness in the shadow areas.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digitial SLR
A long exposure shot here shows the noise-reduction algorithms work well and the sky has some really nice colour gradation. This image only required a little tweaking in Photoshop to make it really stand out.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
The standard AP mode landscape test at f/22 doesn't produce great front to back sharpness largely because it isn't particularly sharp to start with. The metering leaves the ground underexposed.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
Same shot, but this time at f/8 is slightly sharper but not much. There's slightly more sharpness on the far wall. The ground is slightly lighter this time. No colour fringing though.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
The rather pointless macro mode takes control of the ISO, bumping it up to ISO200, and set the aperture at f/5.6 to keep the shutter speed up as well when what you might have wanted was more depth-of-field.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
A bright, backlit scene with a dark foreground. At ISO400 there's noticeable noise in the grey water, but not the black shadow areas. It isn't very sharp, even at f/8 though.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR Two shots here taken at the same time. The first is with no flash which gives natural, if healthy skin tones and finely rendered colours with no noise or patches in the shadow areas under the chin.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
The fill-flash version brightens up the girl's top and evens out the shadows in the face, while retaining the background lighting so that the highlights in the top of the hair are retained.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
This is shot at f/8 for sharpness testing and while it's still on the soft side, there's lots of detail here that can be brought out with harsher in-camera settings or post-production work.
Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
Dark, gloomy foreground, ghastly white sky behind the trees. Yes there's chromatic aberration in the sky area but it's not that bad considering how bad the light is. Also, the noise is very well controlled at ISO400.

Sony DSLR-A700 Noise tests
The standard range for the Sony is ISO100-3200. After that the settings come in red and are underlined to warn you that they are there but you use them at your own peril. I almost expected a Sony rep to pop up and shake their head slowly. Still, if it's there then it's going to be used, so we've shot those as well. Starting at ISO100 then, there's very light variation in the grey card, but it's imperceptible as the image is so soft anyway. At ISO160 it's slightly more noticeable, but you need to view it at 200% to see it still. Not much change through ISO200 and 320. At ISO400 the variations in the grey card are visible at 100% viewing, but it's only minor. Not much change at ISO640 but at ISO800 the noise deepens and now blotches of green can be seen in the grey card area. White is looking slightly patchy but you can't see much effect on the black card or the textures. At ISO1600 there's green/purple noise in the grey card area and petal detail is disappearing in the red areas but this is still usable. When it gets to ISO2500 though, the noise in the grey card area is now sharp and detail has been lost in a lot of the petals. I wouldn't be too happy about using this or any high speeds in colour. At ISO3200 all card areas are noisy and the petals are redder and lack a lot of detail. There's more noise in shadow areas as well. The modes after this come with a warning sticker but to be honest, ISO4000 isn't much worse than 3200. At the top speed of ISO6400 the grey card area is obviously noisy, has a green tinge, but critically, there's little detail left in the petal and there's random red noise in the central yellow area as well.

Sony DSLR-A700 Digital SLR
The ISO100 test.
The ISO160 test
The ISO160 test.
The ISO200 test
The ISO200 test.
The ISO400 test
The ISO400 test.
The ISO640 test.
The ISO640 test.
The ISO800 test
The ISO800 test.
The ISO1600 test
The ISO1600 test.
The ISO2500 test
The ISO2500 test.
The ISO4000 test
The ISO4000 test.
The ISO6400 test
The ISO6400 test.

DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Sony DSLR-A700.

Sony DSLR-A700 Verdict
There's no doubt about it, Sony have pulled out the stops on the A700, it's a fast, well-built camera with plenty of photographic features for the enthusiast. The handling is good and would have been better overall than the Canon EOS 40D, if there had been a top plate LCD. Sony's decision to omit this because everything could be placed on the rear LCD smacks of cutting corners because the other cameras at this price point have one. If you don't mind, then it isn't a problem, but it's the small things that can make the difference when deciding to commit yourself to a camera brand.

The colour reproduction was good with very fine graduation and the camera will serve you well if portraits are your thing. The image softness though - even with the better quality lens that was supplied - means that the Canon is a better choice for landscapes, though I dare say the Nikon D300 will be an even better one as that has 12Mp and the Canon only sports 10Mp. That isn't to say that the Sony is a bad choice, because you can optimise the settings for sharper images in camera - I'm simply comparing what you get with neutral settings. If landscapes are your thing, then extra sharpness and more vivid colour saturation can be set in camera.

If you are coming from a Minolta heritage and so have some lenses already, or have already bought into the system with the A100, then the A700 is an excellent upgrade option. Is it a compelling option to change brands if you already have lenses from another system? No, it probably isn't, but then most cameras at their respective price points aren't so significantly better than their rivals to warrant ditching an investment in lenses anyway.

For someone new to digital, wanting a high spec camera from the start, the Sony is a decent choice as it handles well, is fast and responsive, but it lacks the second hand lens market, even with Minolta lenses, that Nikon, Canon and even Pentax with the K10D can offer, so it will be a more pricey route to follow overall. Best advice is, as usual, go try out the camera at this price point, and see which feels right for you.

Sony DSLR-A700 Plus points:
12Mp resolution
Fine colour gradation
Built-in anti-shake
Fast shooting speed
Good build quality
Decent handling
Easy to custom-configure
Minolta lens compatibility
Focus point selections
Decent autofocus
Great ISO range

Sony DSLR-A700 Minus points:
Images on the soft side
No top mounted LCD plate
Noisy after ISO1600

FEATURES

HANDLING

PERFORMANCE

OVERALL

The Sony DSLR A700 & 18-70mm kit lens costs around £1099 and is available from your dynamic ePHOTOzine shop here.

 

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Photographs taken using the Sony DSLR-A700

Camel at CairoDragonflyMerry PotatoRainbows & Rain...Surrounded!Going to work...The JettyCurbar SunsetAnother Moon ShotTowards the BridgeThe WeirClouds Building...Cloud on the Mountain TopThe joy of... Posing!
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Comments


bedwell e2
8 45 United Kingdom
26 Jan 2008 4:06PM
what vesion of firmare wheryou using i have firmware version 1 still download version 3. will it make much difference to sharpness.

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