Sony DSLR-A900 Alpha 900 digital SLR
Looks great on paper
Review If cameras were rated on specifications alone, Sony’s Alpha 900 would be a hard act to beat. Let’s consider the evidence: there’s a full-frame Exmore CMOS sensor packed with 24.6 million pixels - and, please note, this is the effective number. The sensor measures 35.9 x 24mm. Other goodies include a built-in image stabilisation system, SuperSteadyShot Inside; two image processors to handle all that extra picture data; twin anti-dust systems and HDMI output.
Sony's Cyber-shot Alpha 900: on paper, perfect
But as we all know, figures are one thing - facts are another. What looks on paper doesn’t always turn out that great in practice. So the question is: does the A900 cut the mustard?
Naturally, this is a top-end model - Sony calls it its “flagship” offering - aimed at professionals and serious enthusiasts, but we think that Sony may have missed a trick or two with its target audience, because the A900 has no Live View, no video mode, no eye start optical viewfinder and no pop-up flash. No doubt some serious photographers won’t miss these features, and will probably thank Sony for delivering a DSLR that cuts out the 'frills'.
But one person’s frill is another person’s handy feature, and we think a fair number of the so-called 'prosumer' market will miss some of these elements, not least when you consider that one potential rival to the A900 – Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II – offers HD video capture.
That said, the A900 is impressively built. With a magnesium body and aluminium alloy chassis, it certainly feels solid and robust. And - ye gods - you certainly feel its weight. When loaded up with a Sony DT 16-105mm f3.5/5.6 lens, CompactFlash card and battery, our review sample tipped the scales at 1.5kg. The camera body weighs 928g. Add a flash unit and you’ll certainly need to ensure you’ve eaten your spinach. Incidentally, the camera is compatible with a-mount lenses from both Sony and Konica Minolta.
Hefty to handle
A brief tour reveals at the front, a remote sensor window, flash sync terminal, focus mode dial and preview button – more on this later. On the top are a mode dial - which has the usual PASM modes, plus three user-defined custom settings - a hot-shoe sitting atop a massive pentaprism head, small LCD panel, and buttons for ISO, drive mode, white balance, exposure compensation and illuminating the top LCD panel. In front of these are the shutter button and front control dial.
At the back of the A900 are the power switch, viewfinder - next to which is a tiny viewfinder shutter lever- AE Lock/Slow Sync button, auto and manual focus switch button, and rear control dial. Below these are a vertical row of menu, display, delete and playback buttons and a 3in LCD screen composed of almost 922,000 dots. At the right is a joystick controller, custom/histogram button, function button and a large on/off slider for the image stabilisation system.
The viewinder provides 100% coverage
On the left of the camera body are two flaps covering DC and remote terminals, behind which is another flap hiding mini USB and HDMI ports. On the right side, is a large flap covering two slots, one for Compact Flash cards, the other for Memory Stick Duos. At the bottom is the compartment for a lithium-ion battery.
A brief checklist of other specifications includes a nine-point AF system, three metering modes - multi segment, centre-weighted and spot - expandable ISO range of 100 to 6400; high ISO noise reduction; a shutter speed range 1/8000-30s with bulb option; continuous shooting speeds of 3f/s and 5f/s; exposure bracketing with three or five frames: JPEG and RAW file formats with a maximum resolution of 6048 x 4032;14 creative styles or pre-programmed settings for various scenes, such as landscape, portrait and night; and a dynamic range optimiser for improving contrast.
When it comes to handling, the DSLR-A900 has a lot going for it – and one or two interesting foibles. We’ve already mentioned its weight, but the large body is comfortable to hold and most of the controls you’ll want to adjust frequently fall easily to hand. The front and rear control dials, for example, are within easy reach of the right thumb and index finger. Navigating the various menus and function options is easy thanks to the joystick control.
The piece de resistance is the viewfinder, which offers 100 per cent coverage. Quite simply, it’s gorgeous. The A900 comes with a Type G focusing screen, which displays the nine AF points, and two optional replacement screens are also available. The viewfinder display provides shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation level and image stabilisation information. The latter is in the form of five vertical illuminated green lines, which light up according to how hard the system is working.
The controls fall easily to hand
The large LCD screen is clear and bright and shows lots of useful information, but the top LCD screen is simply not good enough for a camera of this class. In normal mode, it simply shows you the battery level and number of frames remaining. Press the ISO button and you’ll also see the ISO number. But other buttons result in obscure messages. For example, the continuous drive Hi mode is displayed as “oooH”, while the white balance setting for cloudy is “Clud.”
You get a fair selection of Creative Styles, which are pre-programmed styles for certain scenes. This shows several of them.
Sony provides image management software and a RAW viewer/converter (bottom).
Shots taken with the review sample's 16-105mm zoom lens, used here at the extreme ends: telephoto (top) and wide.
We tried the SuperSteadyShot Inside system by taking a hand-held shot at the extreme end of the 105mm zoom at 1/125 shutter speed. The system is switched off and, as you can see, the fast shutter speed removes any signs of camera shake.
Another shot taken with a 1/15 shutter speed, but this time, with image stabilisation switched on. The effects are pretty dramatic, although the end result is not as sharp as the frame taken with the 1/125 shutter speed.
In the same shot taken with a 1/15 shutter speed, the camera shake is self evident.
The Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) is designed to improve detail with shots like these, taken against a strong backlight. This shot at the top was taken without DRO.
The same scene with DRO switched to auto control (top)and the highest manual setting, level five. Some detail has been boosted but at the expense of increased noise. This is an extreme example, but designed to show that such features need to be used with care.
We were also disappointed with a couple more features. It’s handy having the option of two memory cards, although the camera won’t automatically switch cards when one of them fills up. That said, you can quickly swap over cards by using the function button.
The preview function takes a snapshot of the scene which is shown on the large LCD screen. You then have the option of making a number of adjustments - depending on the camera mode - such as exposure compensation and white balance. You can then compare the adjusted image with original by pressing the display button. It’s a handy feature, but because the preview image is a compressed RAW file, you can’t save it, which is a pain if you have captured the decisive moment. But don’t let these gripes make you think that using the DSLR-A900 isn’t a pleasant experience – there is a lot to like about this camera.
Performance-wise, the A900, produces the type of quality you'd expect from a camera of this type: very good indeed. Sadly, Sony was unable to provide us with one of the Carl Zeiss lenses that are an ideal partner for the A900, so there’s probably even more performance to be squeezed out of it. RAW and JPEGs offered similar quality, although the former looks a tad sharper when using Sony’s RAW viewer software. Noise levels were low, although this creeps up between ISO 400 and 500. The High ISO noise reduction system’s impact was more subtle than spectacular. Our advice: stick to the lower ISO speeds where possible. The AF system was reasonably good, if a little sluggish at times.
One thing that did impress though was the integrated stabilisation system, which works with whatever lens you use. It works by detecting camera shake and adjusting the CCD’s position accordingly. Sony says it offers up to four stops of compensation, allowing users to use slower shutter speeds without noticeable camera shake. We took a number of shots at the extreme end of our 105mm zoom, starting with a 1/125 shutter speed. We then reduced this by one stop until 1/8, and compared the results with image stabilisation switched both on and off. The results were impressive, although we found that SuperSteadyShot Inside offers around three stops of compensation rather than four.
We weren’t so impressed with the D-Range Optimiser system, which is designed to improve contrast when, for example, shooting against a strong backlight. DRO does indeed boost detail that is normally hidden, but the price is increased noise. However, we loved the continuous shooting mode, which had no problem keeping up with fast moving vehicles.
Sony is snapping at the heels of Canon and Nikon, and with the DSLR-A900, Sony give its rivals a good old nip. This is a very good high-end DSLR that will please many users. That said, we think some potential buyers might be put off by the lack of one or two features. We also think that there’s room for improvement in the area of handling. But its full frame viewfinder and built-in image stabilisation system are cracking features to have. If you're considering buying a Canon EOS D5 Mark II or a Nikon D700, you should take a long hard look at the DSLR-A900 too. ®
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