Field Test: Sony Alpha DSLR-A700

Click to see how this 12.2MP DSLR handled in our hands-on field test, and be sure to check out the image quality shots made with one of the first production A700s.

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So there we were, about two-dozen journalists cruising around Frenchman's Bay in a small charter boat, photographing the spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife off Mount Desert Island in Maine.

The new Sony Alpha 700 cameras we were using were more than up to the task -- and that was the problem.

Sure, we were all impressed with the build quality and ruggedness of the new 12.2MP DSLR, and the well-designed control layout. And the shots we were chimping on the fine-grained 3-inch LCD monitor looked wonderful. But come on, we're shooting scenery from a boat cruising at a stately three knots on calm water, on a perfect blue-sky day. You could get great shots with your kid's pocket compact.

That's when the biplane attacked.

"Incoming!" shouted a Sony tech rep. "Switch to continuous AF!"

And so we did, also switching to continuous drive. Being the conservative type (at least as far as memory card space goes), I first opted for 3 fps, but, as the stunt pilot buzzed the boat at progressively closer distances (you could clearly see the evil grin on his face), I went to 5 fps, with AF set to autotrack across the 11 points of the frame. Those were shots you couldn't get with your kid's pocket compact. Yet all of us came away with keepers. With a 5 fps JPEG burst rate limited only by the capacity of the card, this new camera never choked on those 12.2MP shots. And the AF did exactly what it was supposed to -- track the plane both as it was approaching, and as it roared across the frame.

The stunt came during a trip to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park during the last week of August. Sony sponsored the event to introduce the Alpha 700 to the press, and the biplane provided a perfect demonstration of the camera's capabilities. Just to reinforce the concept, the Sony crew also brought on a team of stunt water bike riders, and the 5 fps drives went whirring again, capturing many a mid-somersault action shot. Clever, these Sony folks. (A special commendation here to Sony's Hirokuni [Rocky] Miyai, who managed to swap out and download our memory cards -- indexed to specific users, no less -- onto a small Vaio notebook PC, on bobbing boats and careening buses. Nobody missed a shot due to a full CF card.)

Unfortunately, we can't show you any of these pictures because Sony was nervous about the pre-production cameras we were using -- the Sony reps even collected our memory cards at the end of each day. We all agreed that they were being overcautious. When we later viewed some of the images (unenhanced) on big HDTV screens, it was clear from the sharp, saturated images that the cameras were working very well. We will try to wangle some of those shots from Sony to show you, but in the meantime we've posted shots we've taken around town with one of the first production A700s. Click here to view photos.

We'll have hard test data from the Pop Photo Lab on image quality, autofocus speed, and processing power before the month's up, but in the meantime I can report on my experience with the camera, its strong points, and a few quirks.

AUTOFOCUSING

I canceled the AF assist lamp in the setup menu, as I almost always do with test cameras. The A700 had no trouble focusing in dark conditions and on low-contrast targets. Under certain conditions -- using a long lens, moving quickly from a far to near subject -- the AF can hunt. I think this is a problem mostly with the inexpensive long lenses that use the camera coupling for AF, like the 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Sony DT zoom I was shooting with. Sony is filling in the line of G-series lenses, which have internal motors for supersonic focusing, and hunting should be less of a problem with these.

HANDLING AND CONTROLS

Excellent. The A700 has two command dials rather than one (much more convenient for manual exposure, or autoexposure adjustments). The exterior fairly bristles with dedicated buttons and switches for frequently accessed controls, giving it a distinct resemblance to the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D. (Sony unabashedly touts the "Minolta flavor" of the A700.) What looks like a four-way jog dial on the back is actually a joystick for navigating through the control panel, and it's quick and easy to use.

The C (for custom) button can be programmed for a single function of your choice. The AF/MF button on the back momentarily disengages the AF coupling so you can manually touch up the focus. Here's the good part: If you switch the camera to manual focus, this button will now autofocus the lens when you press it. And unlike a programmable AF start button, you can quickly switch back to AF with a flip of an external control, rather than muddling through menus. I have mixed feelings about the built-in flash's slow-sync that's triggered by the AEL button (another Minolta legacy). I think this would be better as a separate button. Or simply allow slow-sync as an option on the flash menu.

The various control buttons and switches are thoroughly gasketed against moisture and dust entry, which makes it all the more odd that the memory-card compartment lacks a lip seal.

LOW-LIGHT SHOOTING

The A700 can be set to ISO 6400, and the revamped Super SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization is claimed to provide a four-stop gain for hand-holding. While shooting a waning sunset over Frenchman's Bay, I turned the ISO up to 2000 and relied on the Super SteadyShot to compensate for handheld shutter speeds in the 1/50-1/60 sec range with a 300mm focal length (450mm equivalent with the camera's 1.5x 35mm lens factor). The shots looked clean and sharp, but our lab tests will tell the full story.

DYNAMIC RANGE OPTIMIZER (DRO)

Carried over from the A100, the A700's upgraded version of this contrast compensator can be set to five levels. In the higher ranges, DRO can look like a heavy-handed application of the Shadow/Highlight tool in Photoshop CS, but I'm of the opinion that it's easier to add contrast later than to take it out. The control is reminiscent of the Dynamic Range control on the Fujifilm FineCam S5, another camera that I particularly like.

POWER

The Li-ion battery in the A700 carries a CIPA rating of 650 shots. I never ran a battery down fully (Rocky Miyai also served as the Recharge Man, and it's amazing the places he found power outlets). But after firing off over 400 shots (all with Super SteadyShot engaged) my battery indicator would show about 40 percent charge, a rate at which it would meet or exceed the CIPA rating. If you want more shots without swapping batteries, get the vertical grip, which permits the loading of a second battery. It's also probably the most ergonomic vertical grip made -- just about everyone in our photo troupe opted to use it.

VIEWING

The 3-inch transflexive LCD screen brightens in bright light, and while it was still not easy to view it in blazing sunlight, most of the testers found it better in this regard than other cameras. It was also difficult to navigate the menus in bright light due to the deep orange used to highlight menu selections. Sony might consider using a brighter highlight color. As an eyeglass wearer, I'm sensitive to viewfinder eye relief, and the Sony made bonus points with me here. Not only could I see the picture frame corner to corner, but also see all the control readouts beneath the screen, without resorting to the finder wiggle.

At the end of this tryout, the various participants agreed that the A700 is a camera designed by photographers for photographers. The message coming is that Sony is very serious about the SLR business. If the A700 is the "advanced amateur" model, it makes you wonder what that future "flagship" model is going to be like.

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