From megapixels to viewfinders to sensors, size matters.
Talk to anyone at Sony about this camera for more than 30 seconds, and you'll hear about the big, bright viewfinder with 100-percent accuracy. Basically, that means what you see is what you get when framing your images through the viewfinder. And with a magnification of 0.74X, you get a large image, too.
The Nikon D700 matches the Alpha 900's magnification, but only delivers 95-percent accuracy. Canon says that its new 5D Mark II has 98-percent accuracy and 0.71X magnification.
Sony's finder should see plenty of action, considering that the A900 doesn't include a live-view shooting mode. The camera maker has tried to compensate for this with a feature called Intelligent Preview. Press the preview button just to the right of the lens, and the camera temporarily grabs an image and displays it on the LCD. You can then change various settings, such as exposure compensation, white balance, and Sony's D-Range optimizer, and see what they will do to the image. We were annoyed that you can't save the image as is. Also, while useful when trying to frame images that would be difficult to frame with the finder, it just wasn't as practical as real live view.
However, we were glad Sony included its sensor-shifting Super SteadyShot Inside in the A900. It's the first full-frame DSLR to boast this feature. In our lab, the A900 gave our testers an average of 2 to 2.5 stops of handholding leeway. That means that if you usually have to shoot at 1/200 sec to get a sharp image with a particular lens, you should be able to shoot at 1/50 sec with it engaged. And since the anti-shake is built into the body, you can get that advantage with any lens, including old Konica Minolta glass.
The downside, compared with the optical stabilization built into some Canon and Nikon lenses, is that you don't see the effect before you shoot. At wider focal lengths, this usually doesn't matter much, but once you get out past 300mm, optical stabilization can aid in framing and may help you hold steadier.
Interested in how much the camera is compensating for your movement at a given time? Sony includes a meter in the viewfinder that looks a lot like the bars indicating signal strength on a cell phone. On the back of the camera is a dedicated on/off switch for stabilization.
Sony plays it safe when it comes to metering. The camera's 40-segment Multi-segment (its name for evaluative) metering mode is terrific at preserving highlight detail. But that also means that it tends to underexpose, especially in scenes with high contrast. Nikon's 3D Matrix metering, with its onboard database of images, does a better job of figuring out the best exposure for a given scene. This isn't such a big deal, since most of the photographers who buy this camera will probably use spotor centerweighted metering anyway.
Exposure compensation covers a wide range of +/- 3 EV.
Burst shooters will like the Alpha 900's 5-frame-per-second continuous shooting mode. Although the manual says the buffer has a limit of 11 Extrafine JPEGs, we were able to capture 20 Extra-fine JPEGs in 4 seconds with a SanDisk 8GB Extreme IV 45MB/sec UDMA CF card, verifying Sony's 5-fps claim. Shooting RAW, we captured 5 frames in 1 sec using the same card.
LARGE AND IN CHARGE
With its first full-frame DSLR, Sony has shown that it can definitely run with the big boys. While we have yet to test Canon's new, midrange, full-frame 5D Mark II, this Sony currently packs the most resolution you can get in a DSLR. Add to that fast AF, an outrageously appealing viewfinder, and a body with a great grip and plenty of dedicated controls, and you've got a winner.
For an experienced photographer not married to another brand's system, the A900 deserves a look. If you have even a modest stockpile of Konica Minolta lenses, then it demands your attention. And anyone who thought Sony wasn't serious about DSLRs has now been officially proven wrong. The next question is who will be the undisputed champ of the full-frame world.