Sony Alpha 700 Review
The Sony Alpha 700 is in many ways a landmark camera for Sony. It unlike the Alpha 100 which was clearly based on the Konica Minolta Dynax 5D which came before it, the Alpha 700 was a completely new design.
- 12.2MP sensor (Exmor Technology).
- Image rendering and data handling by the High Speed Bionz processor.
- 40 segment evaluative meter.
- 11 point AF sensor array with dual cross-type central sensor for added precision.
- Inbuilt image stabilisation (Steady Shot Inside).
- 3" High resolution LCD monitor.
- Shutter speed from 30 sec to 1/8000 sec.
- Flash sync 1/250 (with image stabilisation disabled).
- D-Range Optimiser
The exposure meter is a development on that provided in the a100. It is essentially the same 40 segment honeycomb (evaluative) meter but retuned for improved exposures. In use the meter came across as being neutral in the way that it assessed light. This meant that it did not show a particular bias towards over or under exposure. This is very good news as it allows the user to better determine the required exposure. The evaluative honeycomb meter worked well in many situations but where it could not cope there is always the centre weighted and spot metering options.
Note: The a700 underlying heritage stems from the technology used to define the Minotla cameras in the film era. Back then the metering system was based on only 14 segments rather than the 40 segments now employed (note that the Konica Minolta 7D and 5D DSLRs maintained the 14 segment configuration). It is worth noting that Minolta maintained the 14 segment exposure meter from the Dynax 7xi to almost all its range of cameras. In the digital era, it seems the Alpha line will follow this same philosophy. The A100, A700, A350, A300 and the A900 all use the same 40 segment evaluative meter but with various tweaks. The good point with this is that if you are switching cameras it makes it easier to interpret how the meter is likely to react. One less worry to divert your concentration. Comparing the A100, A350 and A700 shows the A100 to be the odd one out as the A350 and A700 are improvements on the former.
The benefits moving from 14 to 40 segments may not be clear initially but are likely to be of help with the Dynamic
The artificial intelligence employed in the Dynax (Maxxum) film SLRs for determining the type of subject the camera is pointed at seem to have been toned. With the cameras set to program mode the it will try to set what it sees as the best aperture and shutter speed combination based on what is detected by the AF array and the metering pattern. It seems to work better than the standard program mode found it many cameras but could do with some improvements.
The front and rear control dials allow easy and quick adjustment of shutter speeds and aperture. More importantly these controls can be customised to the users preference. For example, the operation of the control dials can be reversed or one of the dials can be assigned to adjust exposure compensation for fast exposure corrections.
The autofocusing sensor array for the a700 follows what is almost becoming a typical 11 sensor configuration (take a look at the cameras from Pentax, Nikon, and Olympus). Autofocusing is very fast (though this is lens dependant) and proved very consistent. Best performance is achieved with the dual cross type central AF sensor. It affords greater accuracy and consistency than the other sensors in the array even with optically fast optics. It is worth noting that the sensor designed to work with f/2.8 lens or faster is not cross type.
The best autofocusing performance is achieved with Sony's SSM (Super Sonic Motor) lenses which have the focusing motor built into the lens. The a700 has a focusing motor built into its body to focus the non-SSM lenses. For the most responsive performance the SSM lenses are a must but the choice of these lenses are currently limited.
The a700 employs the Eye Start feature which uses sensors under the viewfinder and on the hand grip to activate the autofocus when the users eye is near the viewfinder.
The camera with its 12MP of resolution renders captured images in a very realistic and pleasant manner. The usual problem areas of clipped highlights are kept under control. Colours appear accurate if not a little understated in comparison to that produced by the Konica Minolta Dynax 7D. It would of been nice to have a 7D emulation mode but no doubt Sony want to establish the A700 in its own right rather than harking back to the past. To get the best image quality out of the A700 it is well worth investing in quality optics. Shooting with G series or Zeiss lenses shows improvements, in sharpness, contrast and colour rendering. The colours almost take on a life of their own with quality optics in a manner than is not easy to replicate by making adjusts to an image in an image editor.
The ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 3200 with the ability to extend it further to 6400. It is worth noting that the auto ISO starts from ISO 200 as ISO 100 is not the natural base ISO of the sensor. Shooting at ISO 100 can result in a slightly more compact dynamic range compared to normal resulting in greater possibility of clipped highlights.
Firmware updates (the latest of which is version 4) have helped to improve the general image of the a700 and included a provision to totally defeat any noise reducing being applied to RAW files.
Images can be saved in jpeg, RAW and cRAW. Three compression levels are provided for the jpeg format. The cRAW format is a compressed version of the RAW format and is useful for situations when memory card space is at a premium.
The key things i look for in image rendering is smooth gradations, controlled transitions in high contrast areas, controlled noise levels and decent dynamic range. Unlike DSLRs from a few years age the a700 renders images with less blown highlights.
The D-Range Optimiser proved effective for producing photos with more details in the shadows when shooting high contrast scenes. I preferred using the Advanced DRO setting rather than the Standard DRO. More effective control is offered by manual adjusting the levels (five levels are offered) but care had to be taken not to overdo the effect. As the D-Range Optimiser only works when saving photos to the jpeg format but I found it useful to have it employed which shooting raw + jpeg. I found the effect DRO had on images is not straightforward to replicated from raw files even when using the provided software.
For those use to the standard DSLR design will quickly notice that the A700 lacks an LCD display showing exposure, drive, white balance and various other status indicators. This is all presented on the high resolution LCD monitor on the back of the camera. The screen information can be shown in full or simplified and will adjust with the orientation of the camera. Navigation on the display is controlled via a press of the Fn (function) button and movement of the mini joystick. Adjustment of parameters is either via the joystick or using the control dials.
For me the true test of a camera is not how it performs in technical tests but how it performs in the field and the resulting output. One thing that is apparent when out shooting is that the camera will not keep you waiting. Shots are transferred to the memory card with great speed as the A700 has been designed with high speed cards in mind. The faster the card used the better. Clearing the buffer after shooting at 5fps is prompt and typically completed in 16 seconds (after 15 frames) with an Extreme III card and in 7 seconds (after 28 frames) with an Extreme IV card (in both cases shooting just RAW). The a700 can also use Memory Stick Duo cards and I kept one of 4GB capacity in the camera. However, I must confess I often forgot it was there. I could serve as a useful backup to the compact flash card but unfortunately there is no facility to automatically switch between cards when one becomes full. Switching has to be done manually. It would of also been useful to be able to set up the card usage so raw files are saved to the CF card and jpegs to the MS Duo card simultaneously.
The joystick control makes selection of the required AF sensor quick but for consistent performance with fast lenses I found it best to stick with the central AF sensor. It is a shame that more more of the sensors were not designed as cross types. Whether this is an issue will depend on your shooting style. There have been times when there is no time to pan and focus and it would be good if the off centre AF sensors were as reliable as the centre sensor.
The viewfinder was clear and bright with relatively good magnification for an APS-C based DSLR. Diopter eye sight correction ensured customisation to the users eye. Despite the quality of the viewfinder I'm never quite comfortable manually focusing, this is not just pointed towards the a700 but APS-C in general. However, there are alternative focusing screens available for the a700 (needs to be service centre fitted) to aid manual focusing. The focus confirmation indicator is still active during manual focusing. With regards to autofocus, subjects snap into view very quickly. Certainly with the Carl Zeiss 16-80mm f/3.5 - 4.5 zoom lens this is the case. Some lenses are a little slower whilst others are a bit more noisy. Sony's SSM based lens are generally both very quiet and fast. I felt the camera is at its best when using these lenses as the focusing seemed more sensitive and responsive. Autofocusing performance was at its best when the central AF sensor was used. Focusing with fast lenses was accurate. It is worth noting that the central AF sensor area is actually larger than indicated and occasionally led to mis-focus issues when attempting to focus on small subjects. It was not a big issue but it is worth noting. Of more concern was the performance of the other sensors in the focusing array. With the central sensor performing so well I felt it a shame the other sensors weren't up to the same standard. I found the focusing performance not as consistent as I would like and not what I would call mission critical. Having said that, this seemed to mainly apply when shooting with fast longer lenses like the G series 70-200mm f/2.8 SSM and under awkward lighting conditions. I have found however, what with wide AF area selected with continuous focusing for tracking fast moving subjects, the individual AF sensors seem to work well together with smooth tracking from one sensor to the next. Manually selecting a sensor is made straightforward and fast but using the mini joystick like control. The a700 has a built in focus aid light (similar to those now usually only found on flashguns) to support better AF consistency in low light or in low contrast situations.
The Eye Start feature always ensured that the camera had focused as soon as the camera is brought up to the eye. The sensor on the hand grip helps to ensure that the autofocus is not erroneously activated when the camera is carried. At times it was necessary to deactivate the Eye Start but on the whole I preferred to leave this feature on.
The two control dials made exposure adjustments straightforward. The default configuration was to have the front dial control the shutter speed and the rear dial controlling the aperture. However, this configuration can be reversed which is useful for someone use to using Nikon DSLRs. With the rear dial assigned to exposure compensation there was the danger that the compensation setting may be knocked whilst carrying or transporting the camera. Usefully, once there is no contact with the hand grip with the dials are locked to prevent accidental adjustments.
Pressing the AE button will hold the current expose but it will also activate a comparison between the active metering method and the spot meter. This gives some assurance to the correct exposure if you are comfortable with spot metering. This was a very useful feature on the film Dynax (Maxxum) SLRs but in the digital age it could be argued that the histogram now serves this purpose. Having said that, understanding the metering will reduce the time spent having to check histograms and potentially missing photo opportunities. I'm very impressed with the a700's metering. It's not perfect but it made easy for me to determine when it was likely to be in difficulty and how best to compensate accordingly.
The built in flash came in useful for providing fill-in flash to remove dark shadows when taking photos of someone in the midday sun. Care has to be taken when using the built-in flash to ensure that the attached lens does not obscure flash light. I found whilst shooting with the Carl Zeiss 16-80mm lens or the Sony 11-18mm lens it was essential to remove the lens hood. The a700 will work with some of the older Minolta flashguns like the 5600 but the newer HVL-F42AM and especially HVL-F58AM will make the most of the wireless flash capabilities.
I found image noise to be well under control up to ISO 1600 but images were still usable at ISO 3200. Raising the ISO to the maximum 6400 should only be done for emergency purposes only. In practical terms, unless it is necessary to freeze (or reduce motion), the built in image stabilisation helps to ensure that ISO levels can be minimised.
The top plate has buttons giving direct access to White Balance, ISO, Drive and Exposure compensation but it looks a little odd not having an LCD display. The same controls can be accessed via the LCD monitor and quick navigational feature. This all makes the camera highly flexible and fast in use when in the field.
One of the biggest decisions to make when shooting with the camera is whether to shoot with the standard RAW or cRAW. Why, because cRAW although compressed seems to renders images which look indistinguishable from the larger RAW format. There is always the thought that under certain circumstances the differences will become clear. Generally, if storage space is not an issue then use RAW or if you want to be sure you are capturing the very best image. Beware, it is well worth being equipt with at least 8GB capacity cards if RAW files are the predominant format to be used.
An upshot of increasing the pixel count is that camera shake becomes more evident. Increasing the pixel density effectively acts as a magnifier when viewing an image at 100% on a screen. The image is larger than that produced on a lower megapixel camera and hence imaging defects such as focus inaccuracies and camera shake are more apparent. Displaying an image at the same size despite changing the pixel density introduces no further problems (in this context). The necessity for image stabilisation becomes more apparent especially as the old rule of setting the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the focal length breaks down.
In keeping with Sony's philosophy to allow a certain level of integration with other devices, the camera is provided with a HDMI output for easy connection to a HD TV and provided a remote control (that doubles as an infrared remote shutter release) so you can enjoy the photos you have taken from the comfort of your favourite chair.
The a700 uses a battery which I found had enough capacity for between 400 and a little over 600 shots with plenty of use of the main LCD monitor. The battery level was accurately represented as a percentage (as well as a battery icon) to keep the user informed. Even when the battery level gets down to zero there was sufficient charge remaining to keep shooting for several more frames before the camera shut down. It is worth noting here that the a700 seemed to make sure any shots being transferred to the memory card were completed before the camera shut down. I did not experience any corrupted photos or cards. For many I suspect that one battery will be enough to last through the day.
The built in image stabilisation for my style of photography is a god send. It has reduce the need for me to use a tripod and the fact that any lens that is attached to the camera is image stabilised increases the range of lighting conditions I can shoot in. The image stabilisation seems to allow shooting down to about three stops slower than normal. This figure I found dependant on the lens used, the focal length set, as well as how well the camera is held. I tended to just leave the feature active and only deactivated it when using a tripod.
The lack of a top plate LCD display was not missed. Those coming from a camera that has it may feel a bit disconcerted but this will most likely be resolved once the camera is used. The large high resolution LCD monitor is a wealth of information and is the prime way (together with the quick navigation feature) of quickly adjusting settings. Because of the high resolution screen images were portrayed in great detail which had the added benefit of not needing to heavily magnify them in order to check focus.
When shooting with heavier lenses like to 70-200mm f/2.8 G series lens, I preferred to use attached the optional vertical grip to a700. As well as providing extra battery capacity because it can hold two batteries (the status of both are shown on the LCD monitor) it helps to provide better balance with the heavy lenses making handling better. The controls on the grip are arranged in a similar configuration to that on the camera body so when shooting vertically the controls are easy to adjust. There was very little need for specifically learn the layout of the controls. The control came in very handy but it is not an essential item to have. I certainly would of preferred that the grip was designed to be attached without the need to remove the battery with the camera (as designed on the Minolta Dynax 7 and 9 film SLRs and the Pentax D20 and Nikon D300). This makes to attachment faster to attached or remove making which in turn allows me to respond to changing situations a lot quicker.
For a modern camera it is rather surprising that the increasingly common (and almost standard) Live View feature has not been catered for. I personally did not miss it on this camera. If live view was included it should be with an articulating LCD monitor to get to full benefit of its use. Whether you see the lack of live view as a serious omission will depend on how you will intend to use the a700 but it does not make the camera any less of a photographic tool.
The vertical grip is a useful addition. For me it just makes life a bit easier especially when handling larger lenses or when taking lots of shots in portrait orientation. It has a surprising amount of controls to replicate the cameras main controls. I found in general i can average around 600 shots per battery charge and it is fairly quick and straightforward replacing a battery. However, when handling the camera with a large lens and or when changing a battery is to be avoided, the ability of the vertical grip to handle two batteries is very handy. The power level meter on the camera adapts to indicate the two batteries and their state of charge. It is worth noting that in general when the power level meter indicates a battery is depleted it is still possible to take a number of photos before the camera shuts down.
The Sony a700 makes photography a joy. It does not have all the features and refinements of competing DSLRs but then they lack some of the a700's features too. At the end of the day a camera is judged by how it performs in the field and the results achieved and the a700 is very capable. EA