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The Sony Alpha A100 - A Hands-on Follow-up
Taking Sony's new DSLR for a walk around the block

By Allan Weitz

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It's one thing to wax poetically about a camera based on reprocessed press releases and Internet hearsay, and another thing to wax poetically about a camera after actually holding it in your hand and shooting with it. That said we're happy to present a hands-on report on Sony's new DSLR Alpha A100.

When Sony first announced the new Alpha A100 there was a whole lot of chatter around the office about what the new camera would be like. An after-hours love-fest between the sales and marketing staff of B&H and a small army of Sony folks put all of our speculation to rest. The new camera didn't disappoint us. In fact, it actually raised a few jaded eyebrows.

Physically, Sony's Alpha A100 is more-or-less the same size as other DSLRs in its class. Those with bigger hands will probably appreciate the larger-than-most grip, which gives your fingers someplace to go when shooting. If you've previously owned or handled a Minolta Maxxum 5D, the camera will have a familiar feel about it.

Entering the consumer DSLR market rather late in the game, Sony was smart to realize they would have to wow the crowds with technology if they have any thoughts of succeeding in a crowded market. In a nutshell they've done a good job for their debut camera.

Perhaps the neatest feature of Sony's Alpha A100 is its Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO), which can best be described as fill-flash without the flash. Available in two flavors, 'Standard' and 'Plus', DRO makes the worst photographer look good by opening up the shadows in backlit scenes.

In standard mode, the Sony Alpha's DRO system analyzes the pre-processed image and opens up the shadows by brightening the image globally. In the Dynamic Range Optimizer-Plus mode (DRO+), the cameras imaging processor goes one step further by breaking the image into segments and analyzing the image data section-by-section, which enables the image processor to brighten the skin-tones on your subject while maintaining a saturated blue sky in the background.

Sony Alpha A100 Without DRO
Sony Alpha A100 With DRO Engaged

Can you achieve the same effect by carefully metering with the camera's spot-meter and/or diddling around in Photoshop down the road? Sure you can. But the Sony Alpha achieves similar results by adjusting the brightness levels from the RAW image data before the image is processed in-camera, not after the fact when the original RAW data may no longer be accessible. If there's a downside to Sony's DRO technology it would have to be a slow-down in image processing times, which in the DRO-Plus mode can be up to a half second. Normal processing time with DRO turned off is about 4/1000th of a second. Needless to say if you plan on shooting speed skaters or NASCAR races you should turn the DRO function off.

To keep you apprised of your exposure info the Sony Alpha A100 can be programmed to display all of your exposure data on the bright 2.5", 230,000-pixel LCD in large type. The text flips from vertical to horizontal when you change the camera's orientation. To prevent the screen's light rays from distracting you as you work, a sensor located below the eyepiece automatically turns the LCD screen off when you raise the camera to your eye, and turns the LCD back on when you lower the camera. For fast reference this feature is quite handy. As with other DSLRs, exposure data is also displayed in the viewfinder.

The same sensor that triggers the LCD orientation can also be programmed to kick-in pre-focusing of the Alpha's AF system by seeking out the closest or most dominant shape in your viewfinder and focuses on it before you even touch the shutter button. Both of these functions can be turned on or off as needed.

The dust removal feature, which in our earlier report was reported to take place each time you power-down, also occurs when you power-up. If the normal power-up/power-down sequence fails to do the job a more intensive sensor shakedown can be initiated to rid the camera's sensor of the little bugger.

The Alpha A100's Anti-Shake feature works with all Sony Alpha lenses, as well as all Minolta lenses made since 1984. This is a huge plus for those who have a bag of older Minolta lenses packed away in the guestroom closet.

We also had a preview of the initial 19 lens choices that will be available before the year is up. Most impressive were the 'G'-series lenses and Zeiss-series lenses, which should make for wonderful imagery when combined with the Alpha's high-resolution 10.2Mp CCD sensor.

The camera we took for a round-the-block test drive was equipped with an 18-200/3.5-6.3 zoom, which after figuring in the 1.5x magnification factor, works out to a 27-300mm equivalent. For day-tripping this lens makes for a fine travel companion that won't have you reaching for the Advil bottle when you get home. The images we got from this camera/lens combo were quite nice. Needless to say we look forward to test-driving Sony's upper-tier glass in the future.

To sum it all up, Sony's Alpha A100 is quite a lot of DSLR for the buck.

We are now accepting orders for the Sony Alpha A100 body and the Sony Alpha A100 with 18-70 lens.

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