TODAY Sony’s Alpha 900 was unveiled to European journalists at a press conference held in the Caledonian Hilton Hotel, in the very heart of historic Edinburgh shadowed by the Castle and looking out over the west end of Princes Street gardens. The price for the body only will be £2,100 inc VAT from Sony Style Europe and the camera will be delivered in October – SonyStyle begin taking orders on September 10th.
Sony chose the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden Field (September 9th, 1513) for the launch conference and the anniversary of the last battle fought between England and Scotland as two nations (Pinkie Cleugh, near Edinburgh, September 10th 1547) for their field trip… the English press were made most welcome!
Duncan McEwan, Scottish regional organiser for the Photoworld Club and a regular contributor to the magazine, played a key role in the launch as one of the European beta testers who has been using the camera over the summer period.
Duncan has used the A900 with the 24-70mm and 70-200mm SSM only, and tells me that his main interest was to see whether it did what he wanted – not to compare it with the A100, A700 or any other camera!
The Alpha 900 is built in a body not much larger than the now-classic Dynax 7D or the A700, and inherits more from the philosophy of the Dynax 7D. It seems to be, in every way, the promised Dynax 9D which never appeared but with a sensor Sony has advertised as ‘exclusive’. Since Nikon has not launched the putative D3X does this mean it will NOT use the Sony 24.6 megapixel CMOS full-frame sensor?
To take the data from this large sensor – which has a dual readout mode – the Alpha 900 includes dual BIONZ processors. Learning from the feedback given about the Alpha 700 with its aggressive noise reduction, Sony has made this an option not a mandatory process. It can be turned off. In the A700, it was thought that the powerful Apical IRIDIX DRO+ system might boost noise so much that NR was essential – but DRO+ was always disabled at high ISOs.
Sony must have reconsidered their approach, as one week before releasing the Alpha 900, they had finalised the new version 4 firmware for the Alpha 700 which finally ended almost a year of ‘smudging’ (remember what they used to call Fleet Street pressmen?). At the conference it was confirmed that the official release of the new firmware would be September 10th.
The dual BIONZ processors allow a CF card to record 24.6 megapixel images at 5 frames per second, matching the Canon EOS 1Ds MkII (21 megapixels) in speed. The camera uses the processors in turn, always intelligently picking the one which is free sooner.
They are backed up by a substantial 100-JPEG, 13-RAW buffer which permits a unique new function in the 900, ‘Intelligent Preview’. This is an adjustable preview image which can be fine-tuned and have its settings auto-copied before shooting another shot and saving to card. Colour, tone, density and sharpness can be adjusted using the raw image which is always captured at some stage in the processing pipeline – even a JPEG-only save option demands that a raw image exists, temporarily.
Intelligent Preview freezes that raw image, allows its histogram to be examined, and makes it available for adjustment.
The Alpha 900 features an unexpected 100% viewfinder – an engineering feat, given the mobile nature of the Super Steady Shot stabilisation which must park the sensor with 100% accuracy to validate a 100% finder. Since many DSLRs don’t even have properly aligned horizons, Sony must have improved QC in a quantum leap to achieve this.
The secret turns out to be a set of adjustments for the screen position – it can be skewed and moved around to line up exactly with the sensor. This is done at the factory. So, even if the sensor placement is subject to the same errors as every other DSLR, the viewfinder can be fine-tuned to match it and get that critical 100 per cent accuracy.
The finder has a 0.74X factor, making it the second largest apparent view of any current DSLR. It also features a viewfinder eyepiece blind for maximum accuracy of tripod exposures. It is a remarkable finder, with unrivalled brightness and clarity (it uses a true condensor lens and large prism). The viewing screens are user interchangeable.
New lenses including the 70-400mm f4-5.6 G SSM and the 16-35mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss SSM give the Alpha 900 an immediately achievable unbroken range, using only three lenses, from 16mm to 400mm with f2.8 to 70mm and a common 77mm filter fit throughout.
The shutter in the A900 is oversized to accommodate the SSS movement of the sensor, yet still achieves a range of 30 seconds to 1/8,000th with flash synchronisation up to 1/250th (SSS disabled, 1/200th with SSS) without using HSS burst-mode flash. With HSS, faster speeds can be used though with reduced power.
A top plate LCD behaves quite differently to the crammed LCDs of existing competitors, which use tiny symbols and text because every function is visible at once. Like the Function based Quick Navi, which hands the rear screen over to adjusting a single parameter, the top LCD changes to reflect the operation in hand asnd displays simple large info. The text always remains big enough to see with or without specs, for most users.
The viewfinder has marking for the APS-C zone as well as 16:9 and the camera will auto-sense DT (smaller coverage digital) lenses when fitted. All the AF markings are within the smaller 10.1 megapixel cropped area, and the sensor is a new enhanced type using AF Metering Assist cells.
The ISO range is 100-6400 with no expansion to 12,800. There is a function to adjust lens AF by individual lenses, to cope with back and front focus. Current Sony lenses should work out of the box as the camera contains information for these.
The battery is the same as all other Alphas (bar the A100 which will also accept it, but came with a non-compatible battery) and they have somehow squeezed 850 shots from it in place of just 750 for the A700, by improved efficiency. The internals of the body are 20% lighter than the A700, the shell is all magnesium alloy, and the weight is just 850g – not a brick by any means!
More details will follow when we return from the press launch which started at 2.30pm – when this article went live!