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Alpha Waves: The Sony A100
Sony’s Alpha A100 Goes Where Minolta No Longer Treads

By Allan Weitz

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This past winter seemed somewhat colder after Konica-Minolta announced they were withdrawing from the camera business. An industry that not long ago offered a smorgasbord of camera choices was further whittled down to a couple of 800-lb gorillas and a few portly chimps.

Following a rather bold, Ninja-like press release from the home office in Shinagawa-ku, Japan, Sony has released the details of the new Alpha-series DSLR system (approx $899 body only, $999 w/ 18-70/3.5-4.5 kit lens), which is scheduled to begin shipping shortly after the 4th of July. If you currently own any Maxxum A-mount lenses, start dusting them off because this camera promises to be far more fun to use than your old Minolta.

Built around Minolta’s Maxxum A-type lens mount, the Sony Alpha A100 appears to be a system designed to satisfy the needs of a wide range of the photographic community. The heart of the beast is a 10Mp APS-sized CCD, which along with a majority of the DSLRs currently on the market has a magnification factor of 1.5x. As for which lens is best for a given job? You already know the drill; a 50 is really a 75, a 20 is really a 30, a 200 is really a 300, etc, etc, etc.

The Sony Alpha is compact, well-designed, and includes a long list of features that should make it a serious contender for the balance of your year-end photo-gear slush fund.

Among the more notable features are ‘Super SteadyShoot’ image stabilization (IS) technology, a carry-over from the Minolta days that kills camera shake from within the camera. Unlike camera systems that build IS technology into the lenses, Sony’s internal IS system eliminates, or at least reduces, camera shake no matter which lens you mount onto the camera. Sony’s updated version of Minolta’s IS system supports ISO ratings of up to 1600. This extended sensitivity, coupled with the ability to hand-hold the camera at shutter speeds three-plus stops slower than ‘normal’, make the new Sony worth a closer look if you tend to shoot under low-light situations, or where flash is prohibited (or foolhardy). A handy ‘shake meter’ located in the viewfinder let’s you know how stable the camera is as you shoot. The fewer bars you see, the steadier the camera is.

Dust, one of the more evil gremlins of digital imaging, has also been addressed, not once, but twice. Anti-Dust Vibration technology ‘shakes’ foreign particles off of the CCD sensor every time you power up and down. As an added measure, a static-free Anti-Dust coating is applied to the leading surface of the CCD’s low-pass filter. Between these two processes, you should be spending far less time in Photoshop cleaning up those pesky ‘fuzzies’ that have a habit of showing up in your favorite images.

Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) is a hardware-based technology being introduced by Sony that analyzes image data and optimizes the color and tonal values, as well as gain and contrast, of your photographs as you capture them. Accordingly, your photos are ‘buffed’ before they hit Photoshop.

To insure the pictures you take are sharp, Eye Start AF begins the focusing process as your eye approaches the viewfinder. After running a simple calibration based on the contours of your eye, the viewfinder sensor begins to pre-focus the lens in ‘continuous’ mode as it detects the motion of your eye approaching the viewfinder. In a perfect world this should result in images that are in or near focus before you even hit the shutter button.

None of the above is worth a hoot with out optical back-up, and as such Sony will be introducing no less than 20 lenses to go along for the ride. Aside from a selection of zoom and prime lenses comparable to those offered by the ‘other guys’, Sony will be offering a select group of optics bearing the Zeiss nameplate. The first of these slick optics will be the SAL 16- 80/3.5-4.5 CZ, an 85/1.4 CZ, and a 35/1.8 CZ.

Other noteworthy lenses include a 16/2.8 fisheye, an 11-18/4.5-5.6 ultra-wide zoom, a pair of macros (50/2.8 & 100/2.8), a 35/1.4, a 70-200 and 300/2.8 featuring multiple one-touch focus-lock buttons on the lens barrel , and a 500/8 mirror lens for bringing objects oh-so-far-away, so much closer.

From a practical point-of-view, the Sony Alpha (body only) weighs in at 545 grams, which is roughly between the weight of a Canon EOS Rebel XT and Nikon’s D50/70s. The viewfinder displays 95% of the total picture area. To review 100% of the resulting image you can eyeball the Alpha’s rear-mounted 2.5”, 230,000-pixel LCD display.

If you plan on shooting JPEGs, the Alpha A100 will bang out up to 3 frames-per-second until you run out of space on your card. If you plan on shooting RAW files, or RAW plus JPEGs, the frame-rate will be somewhat slower. When shooting in RAW/JPEG mode you can also plan on hitting the buffer wall well before frame ten.

As with Minolta’s Maxxum line, the Sony Alpha A100 has a proprietary TTL flash system for which Sony plans on introducing a duo of shoe-mounted flashes as well as (according to Sony’s initial press packet) a macro ringflash. An off-camera TTL flash cord will also be available. Top sync speed is 1/160th (1/120th with SteadyShot turned on).

The total shutter range is 30 seconds to 1/4000th of a second, and you should expect up to 750 exposures per battery charge. A USB 2.0 connector is supplied for image transfer directly from the camera. As with most cameras in this genre, the exterior panels are polycarbonate materials over a metal chassis. The Sony Alpha A100 accepts CompactFlash cards as well as (Surprise, Surprise!) Sony Memory Stick Duo cards (with supplied CF adapter).

The Alpha A100 represents a bold move on Sony’s part to capture a segment of the marketplace that has thus far eluded one of the giants of the electronics industry. They seem to have all of the right ingredients, and they have certainly done their homework. Sony’s list of goals is a grand one, and they just might pull it off. Stay tuned.

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