Glaciers, bears, and 10.2 megapixels, oh my!
Here's what I found:
1. Blur-Busting. The Alpha packs what's called Super SteadyShot. This is Sony's name for the anti-shake technology pioneered by Konica Minolta on its Maxxum 7D and 5D. This system, which Sony acquired last year as KM left the camera business, counteracts camera shake by moving the image sensor. (Image-stabilized lenses move the optical elements.) Super SteadyShot is billed as providing a 3.5-stop advantage over a non-stabilized system. While in the field, it was difficult to gauge how many stops were gained, I found that high shutter speeds and wide apertures weren't required as I cruised and shot on the Kenai's waters. And neither were they needed as I soared over the glaciers at the foot of Mount McKinley in a 1950s-vintage DeHavilland Beaver float plane.
2. Sensor and Processor. Get in close on an image, and the power of 10.2MP is jaw-dropping. I caught a killer whale blasting into the air, and the tiny droplets of water falling from its body are bear-claw sharp. A shot of an eagle on a far-off tree top could be cropped and enlarged to an 11x17 print without softness. Yet all of this resolution didn't slow the picture-taking or picture-reviewing. While shooting RAW and Fine JPEG files, I fired bursts that caught whales and birds in action, and there never was a delay (the camera is rated for continuous 3.5-frames-per-second bursts). And scrolling through the images on the LCD couldn't have been faster. I leave it for the Pop Photo Lab to rate the Alpha's levels of digital noise. But after reviewing dozens of photos-both my own and other photographers'-printed on both inkjets and dye-subs, I couldn't find patterns of noise. I didn't push my ISO beyond 400 (and I should have in a search for noise), but at that level, the shadows were clean.
3. LCD Screen. The 2.5-inch screen has obvious advantages for reviewing your shots. But it also makes it a lot easier to operate the camera. Unlike many other DSLRs, the Alpha doesn't have a monochrome LCD on the top of the camera that shows your settings. The LCD is Control Central. And that's okay with me. This screen is easier to see, especially when one press of a button enlarges the default type to a huge font that means no squinting to read the settings and menus.
4. Easy Operation. Manuals? We didn't even have them on the Alaska trip-the camera is that new. While it would have been great to delve into the deepest regions of the Alpha's functions with a manual in hand, I didn't miss it a whole lot. Operation is quite intuitive. The button array is much like you see on other DSLRs, but one nice difference is the control dial on top that lets you quickly access the menus for-and set-ISO, white balance, flash, and more. It didn't take me long to get comfortable with the camera, and even in the heat of shooting, I never faced menu fumbling. Considering that the Alpha lists for $999 with the kit lens, a lot of DSLR newbies will be buying it. They won't be frustrated.