My experience with the Sony Alpha 700
December 22nd, 2007 - 12:56:20 PM:
|Sony Alpha A700
On September 6th, 2007, Sony has released the Alpha 700, a DSLR that can be regarded the legitimate successor of the Konica Minolta 7D. Since my 7D showed some signs of age (occasional symptoms of "first frame black", missing screen protector and thumb rubber), I bought a A700 in November as a replacement.
This is not a full review. There are many of these out there. I have linked to some of them here. Rather than listing all of the camera's features I will give my impressions of the Alpha 700 after some time of real life use and address a few points that I think are overlooked in most reviews. I don't try to be objective or fair, I'm stating my opinion. I'm comparing it mainly to the 7D and 7, so this review will be most useful for owners of these cameras. I never used the A100, which already had some of the improvements that also went into the A700.
Features that are missing (really?)
Sony has been criticized for omitting Live View, a feature that is present in both the Canon 40D and the Nikon D300, two DSLRs that were released at around the same time as the A700. I'm not sure if I really miss this feature. I have not used these other cameras, but the way it was implemented there really sounds awkward. On the 40D, the mirror flips down and up again for AF during Live View. This is because it still uses phase detection AF, and this only works when the mirror is down, and incoming light is diverted towards the AF sensors. Furthermore, when using DOF preview, the signal from the sensor is not boosted to always retain the original brightness. And, of course, the image from the sensor is only displayed on the rear screen, not in the viewfinder.
The Nikon D300's implementation is only a little more sophisticated. It adds contrast detection AF during Live View. While this avoids the mirror action and blackout of phase detection AF, the performance seems to be no match of phase detection AF. Nikon advertises this as “tripod mode”, which says a lot.
Until the technology is there to use the full potential of taking the viewfinder image directly from the sensor, I think I can live without Live View. Read some more about this topic in my essay titled “The future of digital SLRs”.
The A700 does not have a top LCD, and many say it should have one. In my opinion such a LCD was already obsolete on the film 7, which had one. Once you have a large rear LCD there's no point in having another small LCD that displays only basic information and which you can't look at when you have the camera mounted on a tripod at eye level. And when you use the camera hand-held, it's no problem tilting the camera if necessary to look at the rear display. Consequently, the 7D had no top LCD, and I didn't miss it at all. With the A700 it will be no different.
Exposure compensation knob
There was an outcry when Sony removed the knob for exposure compensation. While it first sounds like this goes against the design principle of “one function, one knob”, I can't say that I really miss the knob. Already with the film 7 I set up the camera to assign exposure compensation to the rear thumbwheel. The 7D also had this function, as does the A700, and I almost never used the exposure compensation knob. Since I also rarely use M mode, the rear thumbwheel is almost always available for exposure compensation (and in M mode, when the rear thumbwheel controls either aperture or exposure time, you don't need exposure compensation at all).
Flash mode switch
This is a switch that I missed on the 7D. With the film 7 you could easily switch between normal flash, wireless flash, rear sync flash and red-eye reduction. With the 7D you have to go to the menu to switch between flash modes. Unfortunately the A700 didn't bring back this switch. With the new Fn button you can switch flash modes more quickly than with the 7D, but I think a separate flash mode switch would still be better.
Grip sensor (on EU model)
|Grip sensor, just a dummy
Some A700 sold in the EU do not have a grip sensor due to RoHS regulations. My A700, however, at first sight appears to have the sensors. Closer examination revealed that the sensors are not functional. They are dummies.
Since I never use Eye-Start, which the grip sensor supports, I can live without it. This, however, is really a shame for Sony's engineering department. It surely can't be impossible to find and use materials for the grip sensor that comply with EU regulations!
The 7D had quite a flexible intervalometer feature, and the A700 doesn't. While this is an interesting feature for some, I never got around to use it in real life, so I can't say I'm missing it.
Before the A700's release there was much speculation about it. Some hoped for (or even predicted) a full-frame sensor, 10 fps, GPS, WLAN, etc. Of course, these are very specific features, and expensive ones, too. You can't reasonably expect them in an amateur/semi-pro level camera.
Things that did not change
Some things were not or only slightly changed by Sony compared to the 7 or 7D, and this was a good decision most of the time. Among these things are:
- CompactFlash support. Memory Stick support was added.
- Flash system. You can still use all Minolta D and Sony Alpha flashes.
- Menu design and most symbols.
- Basic user interface design.
- Lens mount, of course.
- Exposure metering. It was already near perfect for many years.
- Preset modes. These are, however, no longer accessible as easily as on the 7 and 7D (read more about it below).
- Vertical Grip available
- Studio flash socket
- Remote release socket
- DMF, AF/MF button, exposure shift in M mode
Things that were improved
Things improved from the 7D:
- Better display (larger, higher resolution, better contrast)
- Higher pixel count, of course
- Higher frame rate
- More AF sensors and center double-cross sensor (see below)
- AF assist light on the body
- Higher x-sync speed
- More exposure metering cells
- Wireless remote release included (see below)
- ISO setting in 1/3 stop increments
- Configurable Auto ISO range
- Creative Styles for JPEGs
- Weather sealing
- Precise battery charge display
- White-balance bracketing
- D-Range optimizer, with bracketing
- HDMI output (see below)
- RGB histogram
- 16:9 modes
- Compressed RAW files
A well-featured camera like the A700 always has a few functions that are rarely used. Here's my list:
Well, what can I say. This function was always off with my film 7, and I never missed it on the 7D. The A700 brought it back, but I don't think I'll ever use it. Fortunately Sony didn't waste space for a separate switch on the body.
Printing from the camera
I wonder who is really using this function, especially with a semi-pro DSLR. Everybody with such a camera also owns a computer, and if you print at home, the computer can do it much better than the camera alone.
A camera could have only M and A mode, and I wouldn't complain. Unfortunately, the scene modes take up space on the mode dial. I'd rather have one dial position for each of the three preset modes than the scene modes on the mode dial.
Auto mode, auto ISO, auto white-balance
I like to be in control, so I don't use these features.
Switches and buttons
All buttons, switches and dials have a firm, solid feeling, like you are used from the 7D. The AF/MF button is significantly flatter than on the 7D and is sometimes at bit difficult to use.
The joystick was changed from the 7D. It's now a 4-way joystick which doubles as a button. On the 7 and 7D it was actually a ring on 4 buttons with an additional button in the middle. With the 7 and 7D you'd move your thumb between the center button and outer ring while navigating through the menus, while with the A700 you rest the thumb on the joystick and then only press it or shift it in one of the four directions. This makes it a lot easier to select individual AF sensors than on the 7 and 7D.
The release button has a changed feel. On earlier Minolta cameras, there was a firm pressure point, and when you went beyond it, there was only a very short travel and a hard stop. This sometimes caused the problem that you gave the camera a kick just when you released. The release button on the A700 has a softer pressure point, and a much longer travel beyond it. The camera releases when you press the button beyond the pressure point, but before you hit the stop (and in fact, you often don't hit the stop at all). This avoids causing unintended camera shake. The release button on the A700 first feels odd when you're used to earlier designs, but after a while you notice its virtues.
The three rear top plate buttons (DRIVE, WB, ISO) are hard to reach when you hold the camera firmly with the right hand. They should have been placed a bit more towards the front of the camera.
The front and rear dials are no longer made of plastic but of hard rubber. They have a better grip than their predecessors.
The Fn button activates a cursor on the rear display. With the joystick you can move it to one of the displayed settings and then use the front and rear wheel to change it. Or you press the joystick and get a full page to change the setting, with text explanations of the possible values.
Pressing the Fn button again brings you back to the same setting, so you can change it back and forth quite quickly. The DRIVE, WB, ISO and +/- buttons can be considered fixed shortcuts to these three settings, and the C button is a user-configurable shortcut. I think this user interface concept is an adequate replacement for the 7D's mix of buttons and dials, and you quickly get used to it.
All cable sockets are now on the left side of the camera. On the 7D the USB socket was on the right side, in the memory card compartment. When shooting with the camera connected to a PC, the cable was always in the way. This is no longer the case with the A700. You can hold the camera firmly at the grip and still have the USB cable plugged in.
The A700 is a sturdy camera. Everything is either metal or strong plastic. Nothing feels flimsy or easy to break. Its build quality is comparable to that of the 7. It's not up to the level of the 7D, which really was a tank, but it's also a bit lighter than the 7D.
The buttons, switches and plugs are officially weather-sealed, which is good. However, I have my doubts about the sealing of the card slot cover. It doesn't look like it can withstand much. On the other hand, I never had problems with the (officially unsealed) 7 and 7D, even in the rain, so I can't really complain.
There is an additional metal ring around the lens bayonet, which is part of the internal metal frame of the camera. Some say this is purely for optical reasons, others say this is the contact area for future weather-sealed lenses with an O-ring in the lens mount. We'll see that when new lenses are released in 2008.
Wireless remote release
The camera comes with a wireless infrared remote control, the RMT-DSLR1. It lets you release the camera with either no delay or with a 2 second delay, and you can control image playback with it. Unfortunately there are two significant restrictions:
- The 2 second delay does not flip up the mirror before the delay (mirror pre-fire), so it is not the same as the 2 second delay that you can select as a drive option. Since operation with the remote control is another drive option, you also can't select both at the same time. When you want mirror pre-fire and not release on the camera, you still have to use your wired remote release. This restriction is completely unnecessary. The 2 second delay of the IR remote should always use mirror pre-fire.
- The playback functions only work when the camera is connected to a TV. It sure wouldn't hurt if they always worked.
|HDMI and USB socket
If you think about it, the only half-decent way to connect a DSLR with a TV is HDMI. It's digital (why convert a digital picture to analog and then back to digital) and high resolution (well, at least compared to old analog TV). The difference in playback quality is significant.
Unfortunately, the HDMI cable is not included in the package. The A700 requires a cable with the (smaller) B type plug on the camera end, and these cables are not as common as the cables that have A type plugs at both ends. I don't get it when makers omit a $5 item from the standard package and force customers to spend a lot of time and money to buy the item separately. Making a $1500 package $5 cheaper just doesn't make sense.
Of course, the A700 also has an analog video output.
On the 7D there were three preset modes, each of which could store many camera settings, and each had its own position on the big mode dial. By turning the dial to one of the preset mode positions, you could change all the stored settings at once. You can think of these as “make-your-own scene modes”.
The A700 also has three preset modes. The good thing is that they store more settings, especially the function of the C button. The bad thing is that the preset modes now have only a single position on the mode dial. You set the dial to MR (Memory Recall), and then you select one of the three stored modes with the joystick or front/rear dial and confirm. To store new settings, you change them, and then you go to the “Memory” option in the menu, select one of the three modes, and confirm. The 7D had a special M button for this. When you turn on the camera with the mode dial in the MR position, you get to select the preset mode and confirm. This, however, is easy, because you're offered the mode that was used last, and half-pressing the release confirms the selection. So you can just turn on the camera and shoot immediately if you're in a hurry.
The preset modes are only a little more complicated to use than on the 7D. Still I'd rather have three separate positions for them on the mode dial.
One problematic area of the 7D was its AF performance. It was slower than that of the film 7, and often it also had difficulties locking on the subject. The A700 brings AF performance back to the earlier level. It's faster, and it rarely has a problem to lock on the target. Even though the AF sensors of the A700 are one stop less sensitive than that of the 7D, the A700 is much more confident in low light conditions. That's one more proof that numbers in data sheets don't tell the full story.
The AF is now again supported by a built-in AF assist light. The 7D had to use the flash for that.
The layout of the AF sensors is different from that of the 7 and 7D. There are now 11 sensors instead of 9. 10 of them are line sensors, the center sensor is a double cross sensor. This center sensor is, in contrast to the 7 and 7D, no longer a normal cross sensor overlayed with a diagonal cross sensor. Instead, it's a combination of two vertical sensors and two horizontal sensors, forming a #. When a f/2.8 or faster lens is attached, it's overlayed by an additional horizontal line sensor for higher precision. None of the sensors is diagonal.
At first sight it looks like there no longer are dedicated corner sensors as on the 7 and 7D. But a closer look reveals that the leftmost and rightmost sensors are closer to the edge of the frame than the corner sensors of the 7/7D. The top and bottom sensors of the rows of three sensors are now at about the same position as the corner sensors of the 7/7D.
|AF sensor layout compared
|Konica Minolta 7D
|Sony Alpha 700
Right when pressing the release button for the first time, you hear that the A700 is in a different class than the 7D. The mirror action is both faster and softer. This allows for a maximum frame rate of 5 frames per second, and the softer mirror action surely contributed to the higher effectiveness of Super Steady Shot.
The camera buffer is large enough to shoot longer sequences with cRAW+JPEG (my preferred setting) before the frame rate has to slow down. With a fast card and JPEG only, you can shoot at 5 fps until the card is full.
Due to the camera's higher pixel number, both JPEGs and RAWs are bigger than those of the 7D. The new compressed cRAW format helps limiting the size of your raw data.
|Sequence shot with 5 fps, ISO 800, AF-C, 80-200/2.8 HS-APO G
Most reviews I've seen and many forum discussions were concentrating on noise with high ISO settings. There were heated discussions about which cameras had better noise control at ISO 6400, if high ISO noise reduction is better or worse than with the competition, etc. This is all no issue for my style of shooting. If I remember correctly, I have done 1 (in words: one) real-life shot at ISO 1600 with the 7D, none at ISO 3200, a few at ISO 800, and probably 99% at ISO 200 and 100. I couldn't care less how good or bad the A700 is at ISO 6400, as long as it's excellent at ISO 100 and 200. And it is.
In the following test shots, the image from the 7D has been scaled up to the size of the image from the A700. Both shots were taken with exactly the same setup, with the Minolta AF 100/2.8 Macro lens, on a tripod, manual focus, at f/8 and ISO 200, and the images were converted from the RAW files using Adobe Camera Raw 4.3 with default sharpening.
|Newspaper test, 100/2.8 Macro
|Konica Minolta 7D, upscaled
|Sony Alpha 700, 100% crop
The image from the A700 clearly shows more details.
But remember that you can not see the difference with all lenses. When the lens is the limiting factor, the higher pixel number of the A700 will not result in a higher resolution. This is illustrated by the following shots, taken with the Konica Minolta DT 18-70/3.5-5.6 at 70 mm (the weak end of this lens):
|Newspaper test, DT 18-70/3.5-5.6
|Konica Minolta 7D, upscaled
|Sony Alpha 700, 100% crop
In this example, the upscaled 7D shot looks just like the A700 shot. There's not more detail despite the higher resolution sensor. So unless you also have the lenses, don't expect better results from the A700 than from the 7D.
Exposure metering is nearly perfect, as it was on its predecessors. I've seen reviews that criticized metering as inconsistent. I have not seen this. In controlled conditions I've seen exposure variations of about 1/6 stop or less. This is very little, and in real life shots you will probably not notice this at all. It is far from being “wrong” or “inconsistent”.
The 7D had the occasional problem that, while total exposure was OK, the red channel was overexposed and clipped. You had to pay special attention to this problem and adjust exposure if necessary. The A700 helps avoiding this problem in two ways. First, it shows the histogram with separate color channels, making it more obvious when one channel is clipped. Second, the exposure metering and color conversion algorithms seem to be better adjusted to avoid the problem.
Flash exposure metering was one of the big problems of the 7D. You could have long series of perfect flash exposure, and then suddenly shots that were severely underexposed or overexposed for no apparent reason. This has changed with the A700. Using the same flash unit, of course, flash exposure is always good, with the flash mounted on the camera or triggered wirelessly.
The camera's x-sync speed was increased to 1/250 second (1/200 second when using Super Steady Shot). This gives you more room to work until you have to resort to HSS.
The delay between the metering pre-flash and the main flash is said to be reduced. I was not able to test this, and actually I didn't find it to be a problem with the 7D, either.
The built-in flash rises not as high above the lens axis compared to the 7D. It's about 5 mm closer to the lens axis, slightly increasing the danger for red eyes.
Red-eye reduction is now a separate menu item and can not be enabled or disabled by switching flash modes with the Fn button. Even worse, red-eye reduction is in Custom Menu 3, and the other flash modes are in Recording Menu 2, five menu pages apart! Having separate settings would make sense if you could combine red-eye reduction with the other modes, but you can't. It works only when the flash mode is set to fill-flash. Sony should definitely change this!
The new rear display is just great. It has a high VGA (640×480) resolution, large area (3"), good contrast, and glare is reduced greatly. Unlike on the 7D, it has a built-in hard cover instead of a clipped-on, soon-to-be-lost cover.
Did I already say that the display is great?
Vertical grip VG-C70AM
The VG-C70AM truly matches the A700 in quality, which wasn't the case with the VC-7D and the 7D. The grip is metal and solid plastic and rubber, the ergonomics are that of the camera, the buttons and dials are of the same quality as those on the camera. The buttons and battery cover are weather-sealed. There's even a joystick on the grip now.
The two batteries now are oriented along the grip, which makes the grip not as fat as the VC-7D. The latter was a bit too fat for my hands, the VG-C70AM is a perfect fit. The new grip also can no longer use AA batteries (which, in my opinion, is no loss), and that certainly helped improving the ergonomics.
You can have one or two batteries in the grip. They are no longer used in parallel, so you don't have to be careful that they have the same charge. Instead, the camera first uses one battery, and when it's empty, the camera switches to the other battery if present. The charge of both batteries is shown on the camera display.
Nothing is perfect, however, and I have two problems with the grip:
- Again, Sony chose a design that requires to remove the battery from the
body when attaching the grip. Please, Sony, have a second look at the VC-7 or
VC-9. This is how it should be designed!
Left side of VG-C70AM, why no eyelet?
- There's no longer a strap eyelet at the left side of the grip, even though there would have been room for it. When I was using the VC-7 and VC-7D with a strap, I was always attaching it to the left camera eyelet and the left grip eyelet. So with horizontal shots, the strap was hanging down at the left side of the camera, and with vertical shots it was hanging down from the bottom. In other words, it was always nicely out of the way. Now that I have to use the camera eyelets, the strap has a tendency to hang over the viewfinder when holding the camera vertically.
Still, I consider the VG-C70AM a must. The camera handles better even when you hold it horizontally, because the palm and little finger has a place to rest on. Without the grip, both dangle below the camera (although not as much as with the 7D), or you have to hold the camera more with the fingertips than with the full fingers. Needless to say, holding the camera vertically with the grip is a joy.
Sony should consider the following improvements which all can be implemented with a firmware update:
- Automatic storage switch-over: When one of the two cards is full, the camera should automatically use the other card if present.
- The 2-second delay when using the IR remote control should include mirror pre-fire. Currently you can not have MLU when you release with the IR remote.
- Bigger steps for bracketing options, useful when doing DRO photography. Note: This had been added with firmware v4.
- A camera number shall be configurable and be part of the image file names. If you have more than one A700 and configure them with different numbers, they will not generate files with identical names.
- Default IPTC data (e.g. name of author, copyright phrase, etc.) shall be configurable and embedded in the EXIF data of each image file.
- There shall be more options for the lens button, e. g.
- DOF preview (currently implemented)
- AF stop (currently implemented)
- Temporary exposure bracketing
- Temporary continuous advance
- Dynamic AF control (AF stop when in AF-C mode, temporary AF-C when in AF-A or AF-S mode)
- The lens button function shall be in the set of parameters stored in preset modes.
- The flash zoom reflector shall be set according to the narrower angle of view of the A700, not the original angle of view of full frame cameras. This would get you a slightly higher guide number from your flash (you can never have too much). Note: This is now implemented in the new flashes HVL-F42AM and HVL-F58AM.
- Custom white balance should be accessible more quickly. For example, when you have set your camera to custom white balance, a long press of the WB button shall immediately go to “set” mode, take the shot, and store the result in the current register. The current sequence is press WB, dial to “set”, press joystick, press release, confirm with joystick. The alternative sequence would be just a long press of WB.
- Support for DNG format image files. Come on, how hard can it be?
- Activating DOF preview shall also activate the stroboscopic flash or focus light of a mounted macro flash.
- The initial zoom factor shall be configurable.
- Clean up the mess with the flash setup. Red-eye reduction shall be available as another flash mode, as on the 7D. Don't hide it in the menu, five pages away from the other flash settings!
The Sony A700 is a worthy successor to the Konica Minolta 7D. All shooting parameters are now back to the level of the Minolta 7, and some exceeding it. It's an improvement over the 7D in almost every respect.
As with any technical product, there are a few minor nit-picks, but I don't find any significant flaw with the camera.
More sample shots
- Full specifications of the A700
- Feature comparison between A700 and A100
- Feature comparison between A700 and 7D