Sony A900 Review

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by Theano Nikitas

Published Winter ’09

Sony Goes For The Gold With A 24 Megapixel Full-Frame Digital SLR

“Thin is in” for compact cameras, but not for digital SLRs—especially the new Sony A900— a full-frame camera that features a record-breaking 24.6 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor. In the same vein, the megapixel war may be over for most digital cameras, but it appears to be alive and well in the full-frame D-SLR arena, and once you see the detail captured by the A900, you’ll understand why.

But the A900 is not just about megapixels. The camera is equipped with a solid feature set and a lot of tweaking ability— more than enough to satisfy serious photographers, but with a low learning curve. Sony’s SteadyShot technology is in the camera body and provides built-in image stabilization. Also, an on-board sensor cleaning mechanism helps keep the sensor dust-free. The A900 doesn’t have Live View technology (the ability to see your image in the LCD right up through capture), which may or may not make a difference to you. I certainly didn’t miss it.

Compared to other full-frame D-SLRs recently introduced, the A900 is competitively priced with the Nikon D700, but about $300 more than the Canon 5D Mark II. However the A900 is less than half the price of the new Nikon D3X. The A900 is available in a body-only package. Bundled with the camera is a Lithium-Ion battery and charger, video and USB cables, a remote commander and software, a shoulder strap with eyepiece cap, and a remote commander clip so you don’t lose them. The bundle also includes a body cap, accessory shoe and a printed manual. Additional software includes an Image Data Converter, Image Data Lightbox, and Picture Motion Browser (PMB is Windows only). You might also want to pick up a MiniHDMI to HDMI cable to connect the camera to your HDTV for playing slideshows.

Sony offers a wide array of lenses, but since the camera is equipped with a Sony/Minolta A-type bayonet mount, anyone with a stash of Minolta glass should take a very serious look at the A900. I tested the camera with Sony’s 24mm-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens—a pricey $1,750, but a great lens.

The A900 is equipped with dual card slots—one for CompactFlash (Type I, II or Microdrive), the other for Memory Stick Pro/Pro Duo cards. I tested the camera with several different cards including a 4GB Sony 300x UDMA CF card, an 8GB SanDisk Extreme IV UDMA CF card, and a 4GB SanDisk Extreme III Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo. The UDMA CF cards delivered better speed and the Memory Stick provided back-up when needed, but I would much prefer having two CF card slots or CF/SD slots with the ability to automatically switch to the second card if/when the first filled up. Right now, you have to manually switch between the two cards.

Once you’ve budgeted for lenses and high-capacity, high-speed cards, you should seriously consider at least two accessories: the VG-C90AM vertical grip and the HVL-F58AM flash. The grip, which is one of the best I’ve worked with, is highly functional, thanks to a set of main control buttons. Additionally, with the grip’s two additional batteries (bringing the total battery count to three), you can shoot more than 2600 pictures and still have a little power left over.

I fell in love with the HVL-F58AM flash not only because the A900 doesn’t have an on-board flash but also because the flash head can be angled so it is positioned correctly over the lens when shooting vertically or horizontally. I don’t know any other flash that can be positioned this way and wish that other manufacturers would follow Sony’s lead with this design.

Weighing in at 1 pound 14 ounces (body only, without the battery), and measuring 6-1/8“ x 4-5/8“ x 3-1/4”, the A900 is a shade lighter—and larger—than the Nikon D700. It is substantial enough to counterbalance heavy lenses but I never suffered from arm, shoulder, or neck fatigue when shooting all day. A solid magnesium alloy construction is further enhanced by dust and moisture protective seals. A large, contoured grip provides a solid and comfortable handhold even when the camera gains several pounds with a lens, vertical grip and flash.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s no Live View but the A900 features a high resolution 3-inch LCD that automatically rotates on-screen data and images when the camera is rotated, which is really convenient when viewing or changing settings via the LCD’s Quick Navi menu. The optical viewfinder is gorgeous—large and bright—with a 100% view.

The camera has a low learning curve and is surprisingly easy to use, thanks to clearly marked dedicated external controls and an easy-to-navigate main menu. Often-used settings can be adjusted either using dedicated buttons or via the on-screen display when the Function button is pressed. Changing settings on the LCD’s Quick Navi display, however, can be a little confusing and difficult to remember. For example, both the front and rear control dials will cycle through ISO options, but White Balance can be changed only with the front dial. When the status display is activated, the joystick can also be used to access and change settings, although once the joystick is pressed to “OK” the setting, camera de-activates the menu and the Function button needs to be pressed again to make changes, which is a little frustrating when you’re in a hurry.

Since the camera doesn’t offer scene modes—another feature I didn’t miss—the A900’s large mode dial, positioned to the left of the optical viewfinder, looks sparse with only Auto, Program AE, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, Manual, and three custom options on its surface. Atop the camera’s comfortable grip is a small LCD display panel. Because of its size, only a limited amount of information is available at one time— number of shots remaining and a battery gauge. Aperture and shutter speed are displayed when the shutter button is half pressed and other settings, such as white balance, exposure compensation, drive mode, and ISO, appear when as each of those dedicated buttons (which are next to the display panel) is pressed. Although it’s not the ideal arrangement, it’s better than not having a top panel display, and the data is very legible.

The A900 is outfitted with a solid feature set, with pretty much everything you’d expect from a camera in this class. At the same time, the feature set isn’t bloated with too many features (on the other hand, some photographers may miss having a lot of custom options). However, Sony does provide some important additions, most notably its Dynamic Range Optimizer, which offers a variety of settings to expand a shot’s dynamic range without losing details in highlights or shadows. This feature actually works quite well and gives the photographer relatively fine control over the strength of its application, and there’s a bracketing option as well.

Manual noise reduction controls are available for both high ISO and long exposure NR, although it’s best applied sparingly. The A900 also offers an Intelligent Preview option that shows you how an image will look at different settings before you shoot. Intelligent Preview might be thought of as Sony’s answer to not including the Live View function.

Thanks, in part, to the A900’s Dual BIONZ processors, the A900 performs surprisingly well. Continuous shooting speeds were as fast as 5 frames per second in JPEG and in RAW—which is very impressive considering the sensor’s resolution. Highest quality JPEG continuous capture maxes out at 11 frames (12 frames for RAW), which is still really good for such large file sizes.

The A900’s built-in sensor-shift image stabilization system works very well and I managed to handhold the camera and heavy lens at two stops slower than I normally could. I think that if the lens were a little lighter and smaller I might have gained at least one more stop.

Of course, the bottom line is image quality and the A900 did not disappoint. Colors appeared natural at the default Standard style setting but can be adjusted with the camera’s various styles and tweaking options. Overall, exposures were very accurate and, given the camera’s multiple Dynamic Range Optimizer settings, showed a wide dynamic range when the latter was used. A combination of the camera’s large sensor and the high-quality lens used for testing helped produce images with an amazing amount of detail. If you like to crop your images, you’ll be especially happy with the A900.

Perhaps the camera’s biggest shortfall is image noise and the trade-off one has to make between suppressing image noise with noise reduction controls and maintaining the image’s details. If you don’t shoot above ISO 400 (and preferably below that mark), your images should be fine—even for large prints. Just don’t be heavy-handed with the application of noise reduction.

Overall, the Sony A900 did much to impress from performance to image quality. All told, this camera can pretty much hold its own against the competition.

SONY A900

MSRP: $2,999.99 (body only)
  • Size/Weight:
  • 6-1/8” x 4-5/8” x 3-1/4”; 1 lb. 14 ounces (body only without battery)
  • Image Sensor:
  • 24.6 Megapixels (24.6MP) Full-frame
  • Maximum Resolution:
  • 6048 x 4032
  • Still Recording Format:
  • JPEG, RAW, compressed RAW
  • Memory:
  • CompactFlash types I, II and MicroDrive; MemoryStick Pro/ProDuo/ Pro-HG Duo
  • Focusing Capability:
  • Depends on lens used
  • Display:
  • 3-inch LCD; optical viewfinder with 0.74x magnification and 100% coverage
  • Exposure Control:
  • Manual, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority
  • Exposure Metering:
  • Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot
  • Special Features:
  • Dynamic Range Optimizer, Intelligent Preview, APS-C size capture
  • Provided Accessories:
  • Lithium-Ion battery and charger, wireless remote commander, video and USB cables, shoulder strap with eyepiece cap and remote commander clip, body cap, accessory shoe cap, printed manual. CD-ROM with Image Data Converter, Image Data Lightbox, Remote Camera Control, and Picture Motion Browser software.
  • Power Source:
  • Proprietary Lithium-Ion Battery
  • Contact:
  • www.sonystyle.com
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