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Sony Alpha 3000 review by David Kilpatrick

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There’s not much really, in a different of just three tenths of an inch. There’s even less when the inch isn’t a proper inch, but the sort of inch used to express the size of sensors or display chips. Except, that is, when the difference is between 0.5 inch and 0.2 inch and you’re comparing the electronic viewfinder of cameras like the NEX-6 or Alpha 77 with the EVF found in the new entry-level Alpha 3000 (above and below, from both sides).

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I’ve had the Alpha 3000 (ILCE-3000, Sony model reference number) now for a few weeks, and used it as much as my eyesight and patience would permit, given a wide choice of other cameras to use instead during the same period. I can now say without fear of being shot down in flames that it has the most inadequate electronic viewfinder I can remember using, including finders on various bridge cameras of the distant past.

The viewfinder of the vintage Konica Minolta Dimage A2 used a 0.44 inch 922,000 pixel display chip with a generous eyepiece size and accommodation latitude. That is, anyone able to focus their eyes comfortably between 1m and 3m, with or without specs, would rarely need to touch the dioptre control. The Alpha 55 used an 0.46 inch and the Alpha 77 (and accessory EVFs) 0.5 inch.

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The A3000 eyepiece has a hard plastic surround and small, only slightly recessed cular. The accessory shoe is over the eyepiece unit not over the camera body, and the eyepiece assembly sticks out well clear of the screen.

The Sony A3000’s EVF has 201,600 pixels, not even equal to one-quarter of the 2004 Dimage A2 bridge camera’s display. Because it is such a small chip – a mere 2.88 x 2.15mm which compares to a match-head or a grain of rice – the viewfinder eyepiece has to be a low powered microscope. Like any cheap microscope, it only looks sharp if your eye is precisely centered and the slightest nudge to the focus (dioptre) blurs the image. I found that the click-stops of the dioptre control on the A3000 were so crude it was possible to have a sharp image between them, yet uncomfortably unsharp when set to the clicked position either side. I can’t put a graphic of the actual size of the display chip here, because different screen resolutions would change its size.

To make it worse, the quality of the ocular lens is very poor, with distortion and smeary blurring together with considerable flare from the brightly illuminated display chip; it does not have the level of multicoating or internal light baffles to present a crisp clear view. Since the main selling point of the A3000 over any comparable camera is that it has a built-in EVF, the extremely ‘stretched’ design parameters of this EVF will cost it sales in actual stores where it can be tried out.

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The A3000 kit box. This unit is made for more than one country’s market.

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Inside there’s no software CD, and that super fat looking manual is actually a minimal introduction to the camera printed in 12 languages. It is the Rosetta Stone for a future alien civilisation discovering the remains of Earth!

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The bonus for buying a multi-zone package is that you get stubby cable UK and European mains leads. There is no battery charger, instead you get a 5v USB transformer (as with the RX100 and RX1 models) and a USB cable to charge the battery in-camera. The neckstrap is Sony’s standard chafing and scratching type.

Children, young women and most people under 40 in bright weather will find they can accommodate just enough to use the finder comfortably, though the vague smudge which represents the scene is only to be considered as a composition guide. If you are male, over 40, have typical Western rather than Japanese eyesight age-related changes and try the camera out in a dimly-lit environment you’ll hand it back to the salesman and buy something else which is easy to view through and shows a clear sharp image.

That said, the entire camera and its 18-55mm SEL black metal skinned E-mount lens costs a bit less than the accessory EVF for the RX1/100II. And you read that right, this is an Alpha (so are all NEX cameras, as anyone able to see the Greek letter on them will realise) but it’s not an Alpha A-mount. And though it looks like a DSLR or a DSLT, it is neither.

Thick skinned

The A3000 is nothing more than a rather appealing sensor upgrade to the NEX range, accidentally fitted into a NEX-3 body, dressed in a hollow plastic sumo suit. In Spain you can see parades with impressive giants, twice life size, concealing a very strong young man who can make them dance. That’s rather what the A3000 is like.

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On an iMac 27″ screen you will see the NEX-5n and A3000 precisely life size. The front face of the mounts has been aligned.

My photograph doesn’t just show the relative sizes of the 5-series NEX body and the A3000 together. I have positioned the front face of the lens mounts to coincide. This enables you to see how much space is wasted BEHIND the sensor in the A3000. There should be no cooling problems for extended video shooting with so much air circulation! The A3000 has no focal plane index mark to show where the sensor actually sits inside the body but it’s ahead of the middle of the 38mm thick body, as the mount to sensor distance is 18mm leaving 20mm behind it.

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The whole body, though it can claim to be small by SLR standards and therefore get a ‘smallest lightest’ accolade, is just a big plastic skin inside which the intestines of a much smaller NEX have been concealed. You get the same 3-inch rear screen, though without any kind of articulation or touch function and only 230,000 pixels like much earlier generation cameras.

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You get a genuine metal lens bayonet mount not a cheap plastic version like the A-mount Alpha 58, presumably because the entire NEX system has always been of much higher overall precision than the A-mount range (just as the 1990s Vectis APS cameras were built to finer tolerances).

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You also get a metal tripod bush, though this is in an odd position for panorama fans, located close to the focal plane but well centered on the lens axis; a really well-shaped right hand grip taking advantage of the larger body size.

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It uses NEX-3 style controls lacking any front or rear wheels and just using the back mounted dial-rocker and unmarked soft-function buttons.

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There is a super-simple interface on the left end of the camera with a single SD/MSPro card slot and a versatile USB connector which is remote release compatible.

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The big bonus is on the camera’s fake prism top (which does have a GN4 flash, unable to control wireless flash, but giving excellent exposure and coverage with the 18-55mm). Here you find the Sony Multi Function Accessory Shoe, reassuringly metal and hiding an array of contacts under its forward edge. The A3000 has no HDMI port, no microphone input despite pretty good built-in stereo mics, no remote release socket, no wifi, no GPS, no wireless flash, no studio flash sync socket. It can or will have all of these through the Multi Function shoe. I have not been able to check whether it can also support one of the superior EVFs which would fit (I do know that the Alpha 99, for example, does not support an RX1 EVF mounted in its similar shoe). Perhaps Sony’s expectation is to sell barrowloads of these extremely cheap (£299/$399) entry level interchangeable lens cameras and see the new owners buy two or three lenses, flash, microphones and more.

It’s about time they actually launched the GPS module which this shoe is contact-pinned to accept.

See current price of A3000 kit at B&H

High resolution

Against all the minimal feature set and basic menu-driven user interface must be set one of the best sensors around, the 20 megapixel APS-C seen earlier in the Alpha 58. It is not a stunning sensor, in that some noise can be seen even at minimum ISO, but that may be because it’s got a very weak AA filter (helps with contrast detect focusing) and decent colour discrimination. Applying just a little raw conversion NR keeps the images clean up to 1600 and allows usable (professional, on-line library etc) ISO 3200. It can go beyond this right up to 16,000 but if you need this sensitivity, you’ll find the EVF so noisy and dark it’s hard to see anything at all.

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At ISO 800 (click these sample images for the full size file) you can see the general focus accuracy and sharpness of the 18-55mm used wide open, f/5.6 at 55mm, and also the quality of the flash for shots like this.

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This is an ISO 12,800 in-camera JPEG at default settings.

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This is the same shot carefully processed using Adobe Camera Raw Photoshop CC.

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Here’s a shot at f/8 and 18mm, at ISO 100 (minimum) processed without any NR or sharpening from raw. The sky blue does show some noise even at this low setting. The sharpness of the focused zone (to the left side) is excellent.

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Inside the Castle Restaurant, Edinburgh, the light is natural window-light, looking good but fairly low. This is 1/30th at f/9 with ISO 3200, processed from raw with some sharpening and some NR. I’d say nice colour and tones, a little soft because of limited depth of field, but sharp where it can be expected to be.

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This one is also ISO 3200, but it’s been put through Photoshop CC Noise Reduction filter (NIK Dfine 2.0 looked superficially better but created artificial looking tone breaks) and then downsized to 3600 x 2400 pixels.

There is no phase detect focus on this sensor, and the only focus method is contrast detection, as on earlier NEX models. It carries this out quickly and extremely accurately. Anyone used to the vague calibration of traditional DSLRs will be amazed by the lens quality the A3000 can reveal just through its pinpoint focus ability. No doubt this is helped by the rigid mounting of the sensor, which has no SteadyShot stabilisation and no vibration to clean off dust. The only self-cleaning is an anti static cover glass. A rigidly mounted sensor requires none of the complex carriage supports and adjustments found in Alpha DSLRs and DSLTs right from the Konica Minolta Dynax 7D onwards. It is probably more accurately parallel to the lens mount than an Alpha 900 or 99, let alone any of the lesser models.

Since the camera has an electronic first curtain focal plane shutter speeded 30 seconds to 1/4,000th and full PASM controls (with a little difficulty) with fully auto mode, scene modes and respectable plus-minus override and bracketing/HDR functions there is nothing an Alpha 99 or 77, NEX-7 or any other high end model can do to exceed its abilities except in some cases achieve a 1/8,000th top speed and shoot burst sequences faster and longer.

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Contrast and dynamic range from raw as exposed without any adjustment in raw processing.

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With adjustments for black, highlights, shadows, exposure the sensor shows that it has recorded plenty of detail in all zones.

Used for single exposures, it’s just as much a professional tool as a Nikon D4 even though it might not last a week in the hands of a pressman. For £299 perhaps that pressman might consider buying a couple of these just to get into the next urban war zone street demonstration, or to cover a Spanish tomato fight. The pictures will probably be just as good and if the camera gets kicked into touch, the light plastic half empty body skin could well survive better than a crackable alloy jam-packed top model NEX.

Without accurate focusing and exposure, the 20 megapixel sensor would be of little value. Since both focus and exposure are read directly from the sensor, they are about as accurate as you can get. The raw files also show a very good dynamic range and as expected it’s just a little better in ISO performance and DR than the Alpha 58, because there is no SLT mirror in the way.

User set-up

Again, despite being an entry-level camera probably designed for a huge Chinese and Indian potential market but sold worldwide to ensure it’s taken seriously, the A3000 has vital functions which Sony could have omitted in a purely consumer model.

It has a setting for shutter release without lens, which makes it suitable for use with the vast range adaptors and third party lenses for the E-mount (almost every lens ever made for any format larger than half-frame, whether rangefinder or SLR). Will A3000 buyers want to spend as much again on Novoflex, Kipon or Metabones adaptors and legacy lenses? Maybe not, but they can, and they will work well on this body.

It has a ‘Setting Effect Off’ option – that is for the LCD screen and the EVF, disabling the accurate simulation of exposure/contrast/colour, and permitting use with modelling lights and studio flash. It’s got AF Calibration, usable with the LA-EA2 phase detect Alpha lens adaptor, and the contrast-detect AF is compatible with many SSM and SAM focus motor lenses used on the LA-EA1.

It has focus peaking for manual focus, with magnification, but the low resolution of both the EVF and the rear screen render this less functional than it is in some other models.

A criticism has been made of a very faint click generated, apparently through the audio speaker, when the shutter is pressed. I thought this was a mechanical or electrical relay click connected to the operation of the E-mount aperture, but someone has determined that if the circuit to the speaker is cut (beep off does not work) the click disappears.

Actually, the click indicates the moment of capture for brief exposures and the start of exposure for longer ones (like 1/15th). The first shutter curtain on this camera makes no noise, so you would press the shutter and hear nothing at all. Even ‘silent’ cameras like the RX1 and RX100 do make some noise from leaf shutters. This click is similar in volume or less.

To me this indicates proper concern for the user in a camera where there may be no image displayed on the rear screen and the eye may be away from the viewfinder. You can tell when the exposure is made because the finder blacks out, but if you are not studying the finder, you would have no idea. The shutter button does not have a very obvious point of resistance after first pressure for focusing and you do not have to jab it down. Very gentle pressure will take the shot.

Electronic first curtain shutters are slightly confusing because all the mechanical shutter sound you hear happens AFTER the shot is taken. It is valuable to have this tiny audible clue, which no subject is likely to hear, that you have timed the shot as intended.

In use

The practical side of the A3000 includes a weight so minimal (281g body only) you can take it on a Thomson package deal flight and still carry your wallet and toothbrush as well. The bulk means you are unlikely to mistake it for your iPhone, and the shape means that some people will take your seriously as a photographer while others who would have ignored a NEX will shy away or physically assault you. However, if you hold it out and use the rear screen to compose, no-one will do either as they will assume you are a beginner and ignore you.

To do this, you must press a button on the top. The camera has no eye sensors (it does not even have a rubber eyepiece surround and its 21mm eyepoint just helps to avoid the regularly clattering on spectacle lenses against hard plastic). This means that you can lift the camera to do a rear screen frame-up and the screen is, of course, dead. You get used to it.

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The mode dial appears to be metallic and has raised marking. Note the Finder/LCD manual switching button and the safe position of the Movie button away from accidental pressure (it can also be disabled completely).

The camera lacks any kind of finger or thumb wheel so the adjustments are all made after the fashion of the most basic NEX (3 or 5 series models). This is only a bit of a nuisance when setting shutter speed and aperture manually. It does have a lockout for the movie button, a lesson learned from the notoriously free triggering of video shooting by the badly placed red button on countless previous Sony models. The button is actually placed where you wouldn’t hit it by mistake anyway – belt and braces.

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The 3 inch rear screen seems to have a very good quality finish – a better acrylic, or might it even be glass? Mine seems to be remaining unscratched to the same degree as Gorilla Glass protectors do.

The EVF is only just acceptable in bright sunshine, when it is also most useful as the rear screen may become unusable. It does not really show the tones of the scene (take a shot and play it back and the difference is obvious) and it shows very little detail. You can make out all the larger shapes in a composition. In some ways it probably encourages good composition. You can’t really tell if the focus is sharp but green confirmation rectangles or a wide zone will activate, with beep if requested, and the shutter release won’t operate until focus is OK. It has optional grid line display and 25 focus points so the little display can get pretty busy.

I have no interest in medium rate burst sequences personally as there’s hardly any action or subject where I do not prefer to time individual shots. A modest 2.5fps is no different to 3.5fps or even 5fps or 1.5fps for me. Really fast stuff like 8 or 10fps or Nikon’s incredible 60fps on the 1 V2 and AW1 has some appeal as this does give you a chance of optimum timing for sports and general action. The A3000 doesn’t. OK, photograph your toddler stumbling towards the camera, just don’t try to advertise the kid on Facebook. Try eBay instead, it’s a far surer way to get rid of them before they become too much trouble.

The worst experience I’ve had with the A3000 has been EVF use in extremely dim indoor conditions, with or without flash, regardless of ISO set and lens used. The rear screen performs much better so it is not just a matter of the sensor’s live view feed. However, in typical well-lit interiors its only failing is that Auto White Balance doesn’t seem to work even if Setting Effect is enabled – it will look brighter than an optical finder, and reasonably clean and clear, but often show a strong colour cast which is not present in the final shot.

I’ve shot a few video clips with acoustic performers and found the sound to be good but very prone to auto gain ducking and boosting. To make decent videos with sound, you have to buy the shoe fitting accessory microphone or audio preamp unit. This is no great surprise as to date only the Alpha 99 has the right functions to control levels and use a conventional plug-in condensor mic directly.

And back to those small differences

I started out by observing the miniscule size of the EVF display chip. I’m going to end with something unexpected. Snapsort.com’s camera comparer states that the A3000 has a larger than normal APS-C sensor, 25.1 x 16.7mm instead of the normal 23.5 x 15.6mm. If this was the case, the camera would gain a huge bonus point, as 1.6mm in 23.5mm would ‘turn’ your Sigma 8-16mm zoom into 7.5mm-15mm.

But the handbook clearly states the A3000 actually has a smaller than normal sensor, 23.2 x 15.4mm. The Sony website says that it has a 23.5 x 15.6mm sensor. Amazon incorrectly lists the size of the original APS-C film format.

The handbook also claims that the EVF is 0.7X when Snapsort comparison specifications gives 0.49X – without knowing where this figure comes from, I can only confirm that the EVF is visually a fraction smaller than a typical 0.72X APS-C like the Alpha 580 (this is easily established by holding two cameras, one to the left and one to the right eye, and seeing how the finder windows compare). So don’t believe everything you read about the A3000. The 0.70X is true. The specs also show an extreme dioptre range (-4.0 to +3.5) for the eyepiece, which is necessary given the critical viewing conditions produced by such a high powered ocular and small display chip.

Actually the Snapsort comparator is very badly written, as it also claims a normal Sony Alpha body is 3.5 inches deep (it’s actually 2.55, 65mm mount to back, compared to the A3000’s 38mm) and that the A3000 is 4.7X smaller than an Alpha 57. This is based on measuring the A57 including prism and grip, and the A3000 on mount to back body thickness only. The A3000 is volumetrically 1.35X smaller including all external air space – the ‘box’ it can fit in – and in linear terms it’s only about 4mm less tall and 102mm long as opposed to 132mm. It’s small but there is a fair amount of bad measurement and worse measurement floating around the net.

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Don’t tell me stabilisation would not be a bonus even for the 16mm. If not, why did they make the 10-18m an OSS lens? The 16mm chrome lens looks rather odd on this body.

Snapsort also lists the lack of in-body stabilisation as an advantage compared to the Alpha 57 because apparently in-lens stabilisation gives ‘less risk of blur’. In my experience the two methods are equally effective and our many Alpha bodies offer the choice between using IBIS and lens IS. The A3000 with IBIS (SS) would have been a great companion for the 16mm, new 20mm f/2.8, Zeiss 24mm f/1.8, SEL 30mm Macro, SEL 35mm f/1.8 and the Zeiss TOUIT 12mm f/2.8 and 32mm f/1.8 – not to mention the Sigma 19mm f/2.8, 30mm f/2.8 and 60mm f/2.8. All these excellent lenses currently must survive with no stabilisation other than pixel-shift electronic processing for video work on some cameras.

The A3000 is very small, but the saving is mostly on width left to right, and on the thickness of the body disregarding the ‘prism’ overhang and the right hand grip. The grip extends nearly as far as any other Alpha, meaning that you actually get a much deeper inside surface so your fingers wrap right round. It gives the A3000 the most secure right hand grip of any camera I know, almost 30mm of sculptured rubber-skinned moulding. Like the rear of the body, this appears to be completely empty. It’s just a moulded grip with a few connections in the top for the shutter button and on-off switch. It does not even house the battery (NEX type) which sits well behind it.

The lens

The cheapest kit for the camera includes a black 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS. Well, I might as well admit I sold the black 18-55mm which came with my original NEX-7 for £200. Previous 18-55mms were chrome, I bought a Tamron VC DiIII 18-200mm, and the black lenses were in high demand. Now, I get one again, but in with an A300 body and the brand new price was only £349 – one month later, cut to £299. So does that mean I really only paid £99 for this body?

I was not over-impressed by the performance of the 18-55mm on NEX-7. Now I find this latest 18-55mm seems much better. It is made in Thailand, not Japan or China, just like the camera body. Sony must have opened a new plant or recovered the factory which was swamped by two metres of floodwater a couple of years ago. Whatever the case, the Thai contractors (whose story started with the Nikon Pronea APS SLR) have a highly skilled workforce now with almost two decades of experience.

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The A3000 looks great with the 18-200mm, whether Sony or Tamron branded.

This lens is so good it compares with the Fujinon 16-50mm I was using recently, and Fuji’s lenses are generally a level above Sony in quality as well as cost. I have found the A3000 body to be a great companion for my 18-200mm as well. It just looks much better on this body, handles better with the right-hand grip, and focuses better than on my NEX-5n. The EVF with the VC stabilisation is better to use than any rear LCD screen when a lens can be extended to 200mm on this format.

The final dilemma

As you will gather, I have big problems with the very poor EVF of this camera. I don’t really have any issue with the relatively low resolution rear LCD. The only other thing which causes me any problems is that I’ve been using Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a while alongside my Sony kit, and I have come to value its in-body stabilisation. I felt able to buy a Sigma 60mm f/2.8 for the Olympus – this is a truly wonderful lens, equivalent to a 120mm on the MicroFourThirds format. I don’t feel able to buy one for the NEX as I know the combination of a 90mm equivalent lens and no stabilisation at all will result in poor sharpness from a super-sharp optic, in many of the conditions I like to use such a lens.

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Had Sony decided to put SteadyShot into this body, I think it would have made a great difference. The NEX mount market is just waiting for a stabilised-sensor body able to guarantee the best results from the hundreds of adapted lenses around (Olympus, of course, has a menu to let you enter the focal length of any adapted lens and thus ensure correct IS). But the price point would then have been missed and the precision of the assembly might have been compromised without even greater expense in manufacturing.

I have been using the OM-D more often; its 12-50mm standard zoom is a very good lens, I have a 45mm f/1.8 portrait lens and now the Sigma 60mm which is semi-macro with a great working distance for flowers and fungi. The 5-axis stabilisation works well. I have a drawer full of legacy lenses, adaptors and accessories for NEX but all of them are let down by the lack in sensor stabilisation. The only thing stopping me from ditching NEX and shifting to MicroFourThirds is the lack of a decent wide-angle within that system. I have access to 12mm (16mm+ converter) or 8mm (Sigma zoom with LA-EA1) but for the Olympus I really would need a 6mm lens and no such thing is made.

So, do I sell the A3000? I like to buy rather than beg and borrow cameras for test purposes. Borrowed cameras are OK when it’s not possible – there’s a Canon EOS 70D kit about to land for a couple of weeks – but bought cameras don’t half focus the keyboard fingers. It is easy to be too kind to a camera lent to you for a couple of weeks. It is not so easy to be kind to one you have paid for, unless you are dishonest and think that writing it up favourably will make a camera you don’t like easier to sell on!

Take the Nikon D600. We couldn’t lie about the showers of stuff deposited on the sensor by the shutter. We had bought a full kit. My reviews didn’t hestitate to mention the shutter issue. Nikon replaced the shutter in the camera under warranty and we immediately sold it, the buyer getting a considerable bargain (effectively, a 28-300mm Nikon lens, a GPS unit and a Sigma 17-35mm of proven performance thrown in free with a body that included a transferrable warranty). The buyer also knew who was selling it and could read the reviews. Now we see the Nikon D610 launched with an entirely new shutter mechanism, though Nikon has never once admitted the problem with the original D600. Reviewers and critics and technicians, 1, Nikon 0. Reviewer’s bank balance, -1.

My inclination is to keep this camera despite no GPS and a poor EVF. It’s so cheap that it is really only a swap for the NEX-3 kit I sold this year. I’ve written one paid review which writes off part of the cost of the camera (we make nothing from this website now unless visitors decide to subscribe to Cameracraft magazine which is not all that directly related). I can use it alongside my NEX-5n which is so much better with the 16mm f/2.8 – that lens just looks silly on the A3000. I can maybe even fit my optical finder to the 5n for the 16mm now. I have recently bought some extension tubes.

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The A3000 has all the contacts – but are they all wired?

If only the A3000 had a tilting rear screen…or the NEX-6 had the 20 megapixel sensor… or the NEX-7 had the new hot shoe… if any one of the them had on-board GPS like my A55, A77 and A99… if the GPS module for the new hot shoe existed…

What a mess! Sony does not offer choice. It offers buyers’ dilemmas and buyers’ remorse, as in ‘did I buy the right model?’ or ‘did I pick the wrong system?’. Sony is doing just the same with the Alpha A-mount system. You have to pick a sensor you trust over a viewfinder which is great or a format and lens kit change or controllable audio input or having GPS or missing your built-in flash. No way can you have it all in one body.

(below – my conclusion written in October – we now know of course what was launched, and also that there will be an A5000)

Sony must surely follow this up with an A5000, or whatever, adding a few missing refinements to the camera and making it a £499 kit. That is what I would really like. But for the moment, the results from this cheap entry-level ILC are so good I have not touched the NEX-5n or the Alpha 77 since it arrived. And that is maybe the last word.

Except for the full-frame NEX or the interchangeable lens RX1 or the NEX fitted with Olympus-derived 5-axis IBIS – or whatever mid-October brings.

(added below – a comment at the end of 2013)

The A3000 is now sold for as little as £220 including in the UK (£185 before tax) and for $300 US. It is also sold with incentive deals for the 55-210mm E OSS lens, an excellent telephoto option, in addition to the 18-55mm. Am I upset that my camera’s value has been reduced? Well, I often sell cameras I buy to review, eventually. This one I decided to keep. It’s got the best imaging quality of ALL my APS-C cameras and so far, the 20 megapixel sensor responsible for this has not appeared in anything else except the plastic-bayonet A58. It’s a remarkable bargain now and it’s almost being given away.

- David Kilpatrick

Nikon 1 system makes a splash

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How many outlets will use that original headline, I wonder, and what inspiration leads to it…

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Today, Nikon released the world’s first interchangeable lens digital camera – if you ignore the military version of the Nikonos RS underwater SLR produced with Kodak. Unlike that specialised system, the AW1 is intended for the consumer and is extremely affordable. Available in black, white or silver metal finish for £749 with standard 11mm-27.5mm F3.5-5.6 Zoom lens (equivalent, in 35mm terms, to 30mm to 74mm) which is rated for 15m submersion, or £949 with the 10mm F2.8 and the zoom, with the 10mm supporting 20m submersion.

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Part of NIkon’s 1-series, the AW1 sports the hybrid AF 14Mp sensor, high-speed shooting (now 15fps with continuous AF) and good high ISO abilities that defined the CX-mount family from the start, with some enhancements inherited from newer models and ideal for underwater use. First, though, let’s look at the mount that makes the AW1 so unique.

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It’s very similar, in concept, to the Nikonos RS mount, but reversed. Even the familiar grease to maintain the seals is included. Naturally, changing the lenses underwater is not possible, as the sensor and electronics are exposed – and any foreign body such as hair or sand will stand a chance of compromising that seal, so Nikon is placing a great deal of trust in their consumers’ ability to understand and maintain the camera properly.

As a member of the CX/1 family, the AW1′s physical lens mount and registration is unchanged, but the body includes a greater protrusion for the flange with a rubber gasket. On the new underwater lenses, the mount is recessed, with the extension of the barrel including a silicone liner. Mounting the underwater lenses is satisfyingly difficult, making it clear that this is sealing to back up the claims of 15m submersion.

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Aiding the underwater experience, the 11mm-27.5mm zoom has a grippy metal zoom collar for most of the barrel, and the AW1 uses an innovative ‘press and tilt’ mode selection – simply hold the mode button, and a virtual pendulum hangs on the LCD to indicate the mode. Tilt the camera body clockwise or vice-versa and it indicates one of the automatic modes for video, creative shooting etc. and selects it without any need for additional buttons or hands. This also eradicates the issue with the early Nikon 1, where the mode wheel could be knocked into a new shooting mode when extracting it from a bag or pocket.

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An underwater 10mm prime lens has also been introduced, which can be submerged to 20m.

AW10_BK_1

 

The AW1 does not make existing CX mount lenses suitable for use underwater, and the underwater lenses will not mount on existing CX bodies such as the V2. Yet the flexibility of the system does allow F-mount lenses via the adaptor, so opting for the AW1 really gives very little away in overall ability.

Other technical improvements include GPS/GLONASS support with compass, depth and altitude meters, shockproof from 2m capability, and an underwater Speedlight (the SB-N10) will also be introduced, though the camera’s own pop up flash can be used underwater. Several accessories have been announced, including the obligatory bright rubber housing which includes a grippy collar for the lens.

CF_N6000_OR

We had the opportunity to try a pre-production sample for water, drop resistance and handling, though not photography for publication as the firmware is yet to be finalised, with the camera release date set for 10th October. The silver metal body was particularly attractive, and it seems that at this point, this is where the Nikon 1 system and the CX mount come into their own – offering something truly unique, with a form factor and range of abilities that suits the intended user perfectly.

- Richard Kilpatrick

AW1 Specifications:

Type
Digital camera with support for interchangeable lenses
Lens mount
Nikon waterproof 1 mount
Effective angle of view
Approx. 2.7x lens focal length (35mm format equivalent)
Effective pixels
Effective pixels
14.2 million
Image sensor
Image sensor
13.2 mm x 8.8 mm CMOS sensor (Nikon CX format)
Storage
Image size (pixels)

Still images (auto, best moment capture, and all creative modes other than Easy panorama; aspect ratio 3:2)

  • 4608 x 3072
  • 3456 x 2304
  • 2304 x 1536

Still images
(Normal panorama, camera panned horizontally; aspect ratio 120:23)

  • 4800 x 920

Still images
(Normal panorama, camera panned vertically; aspect ratio 8:25)

  • 1536 x 4800

Still images
(Wide panorama, camera panned horizontally; aspect ratio 240:23)

  • 9600 x 920

Still images
(Wide panorama, camera panned vertically; aspect ratio 4:25)

  • 1536 x 9600

Still images
(taken during movie recording, aspect ratio 3:2)

  • 4608 x 3072 (1080/60i, 1080/30p)
  • 1280 x 856 (720/60p, 720/30p)

Still images
(Motion Snapshots; aspect ratio 16:9)

  • 4608 x 2592
File format
  • NEF (RAW): 12-bit, compressed
  • JPEG: JPEG-Baseline compliant with fine (approx. 1:4), normal (approx. 1:8), or basic (approx. 1:16) compression
  • NEF (RAW) + JPEG: Single photograph recorded in both NEF (RAW) and JPEG formats
Picture Control system
Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape; selected Picture Control can be modified; storage for custom Picture Controls
Media
SD (Secure Digital), SDHC, and SDXC memory cards
File system
DCF (Design Rule for Camera File System) 2.0, DPOF (Digital Print Order Format), Exif (Exchangeable Image File Format for Digital Still Cameras) 2.3, PictBridge
Shooting modes
Shooting modes
auto; creative, with a choice of the following options: P, S, A, M, underwater, night landscape, night portrait, backlighting, easy panorama, soft, miniature effect, and selective color; best moment capture (slow view and Smart Photo Selector), advanced movie (HD-P, S, A, M only-and slow motion), Motion Snapshot
Shutter
Type
Electronic shutter
Speed
1/16,000-30 s in steps of 1/3 EV; BulbNote: Bulb ends automatically after approximately 2 minutes
Flash sync speed
Synchronizes with shutter at X=1/60 s or slower
Release
Modes
  • Single frame, continuous
  • Self-timer
Frame advance rate
Approx. 5, 15, 30, or 60 fps
Self-timer
2 s, 5 s, 10 s
Exposure
Metering
TTL metering using image sensor
Metering method
  • Matrix
  • Center-weighted: Meters 4.5 mm circle in center of frame
  • Spot: Meters 2 mm circle centered on selected focus area
Mode
  • P programmed auto with flexible program;
  • S shutter priority auto;
  • A aperture-priority auto;
  • M manual;
  • scene auto selector
Exposure compensation
-3-+3 EV in increments of 1/3 EV
Exposure lock
Luminosity locked at metered value when shutter-release button is pressed halfway
ISO sensitivity
(Recommended Exposure Index)
ISO 160-6400 in steps of 1 EV; auto ISO sensitivity control (ISO 160-6400, 160-3200, 160-800) available (user controlled when P, S, A, M, or underwater is selected in creative mode)
Active D-Lighting
On, off
Focus
Autofocus
Hybrid autofocus (phase-detection/contrast-detect AF); AF-assist illuminator
Lens servo
  • Autofocus (AF): Single AF (AF-S); continuous AF (AF-C); auto AF-S/AF-C selection (AF-A); fulltime AF (AF-F)
  • Manual focus (MF)
AF-area mode
Single-point, single-point (center), auto-area, subject tracking
Focus area
  • Single-point AF: 135 focus areas; the center 73 areas support phase-detection AF
  • Auto-area AF: 41 focus areas
Focus lock
Focus can be locked by pressing shutter-release button halfway (single AF)
Face priority
On, off
Flash
Built-in flash
Manual pop-up
Guide Number (GN)
Approx. 5/16 (m/ft, ISO 100, 20 °C / 68 °F; at ISO 160, Guide Number is approx. 6.3/20.7)
Control
i-TTL flash control using image sensor
Mode
Fill flash, red-eye reduction, fill flash + slow sync, red-eye reduction + slow sync, rear curtain + slow sync, rear-curtain sync, off
Flash compensation
-3-+1 EV in increments of 1/3 EV
Flash-ready indicator
Lights when built-in flash unit is fully charged
White balance
Auto, underwater, incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual, all except preset manual with fine tuning
Movie
Metering
TTL metering using image sensor
Metering method
  • Matrix
  • Center-weighted: Meters 4.5 mm circle in center of frame
  • Spot: Meters 2 mm circle centered on selected focus area
Frame size (pixels)/
recording rate

HD movies (aspect ratio 16:9)

  • 1920 x 1080 / 60 i (59.94 fields/s*)
  • 1920 x 1080 / 30 p (29.97 fps)
  • 1280 x 720 / 60 p (59.94 fps)
  • 1280 x 720 / 30 p (29.97 fps)

Slow-motion movies (aspect ratio 8:3)

  • 640 x 240 / 400 fps (plays at 30 p / 29.97 fps)
  • 320 x 120 / 1200 fps (plays at 30 p / 29.97 fps)

Motion Snapshot (aspect ratio 16:9)

  • 1920 x 1080 / 60 p (59.94 fps) (plays at 24 p / 23.976 fps)
File format
MOV
Video compression
H.264 / MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding
Audio recording format
AAC
Audio recording device
Built-in stereo microphone; sensitivity adjustable
Monitor
Monitor
7.5 cm (3-in.), approx. 921k-dot, TFT LCD with brightness adjustment
Playback
Full-frame and thumbnail (4, 9, or 72 images or calendar) playback with playback zoom, movie and panorama playback, slide show, histogram display, auto image rotation, and rating option
Interface
USB
Hi-Speed USB
HDMI output
Type C mini-pin HDMI connector
Electronic compass/location data/altimeter/depth gauge
Electronic compass
16 headings (with 3-axis accelerometer attitude correction and automatic offset adjustment)
Location data
  • Receiving frequency: 1575.4200 MHz (GPS)/ 1598.0625-1605.3750 MHz (GLONASS)
  • Geodesics: WGS84
Altimeter
Operating range approximately -500-+4500 m (-1640-+14,760 ft)
Depth gauge
Operating range approximately 0-20 m (0-65.6 ft)
Supported languages
Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Marathi, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese (European and Brazilian), Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese
Power source
Battery
One rechargeable Li-ion EN-EL20 battery
AC adapter
EH-5b AC adapter; requires EP-5C power connector (available separately)
Tripod socket
1/4-in. (ISO 1222)
Dimensions/Weight
Dimensions (W x H x D)
Approx. 113.3 x 71.5 x 37.5 mm (4.5 x 2.9 x 1.5 in.), excluding projections
Weight
Approx. 356 g (12.6 oz) with battery and memory card but without body cap or O-ring protector; approx. 313 g (11.1 oz), camera body only
Operating environment
Temperature
-10 °C -+40 °C (+14 °F-104 °F) on land, 0 °C- +40 °C (+32 °F-104 °F) in water
Humidity
85% or less (no condensation)
Shockproof, waterproof, and dustproof performance
Shockproof performance 1, 2
Has passed in-house tests 3 to MIL-STD-810F Method 516.5: Shock standard
Waterproof performance 2
In-house tests have demonstrated JIS/IEC Class 8 (IPX8) waterproof performance; can be used at depths of up to 15 m (49 ft) for up to 60 minutes
Operating depth 2
Maximum 15 m (49 ft)
Dustproof performance 2
In-house tests have demonstrated JIS/IEC Class 6 (IP6X) dustproof performance
  • * Sensor output is about 60 fps.
  1. Does not apply when built-in flash is raised.
  2. With special-purpose waterproof lens attached.
  3. Using a test method derived from MIL-STD-810F Method 516.5: Shock, the product is dropped from a height of 200 cm (6.6 ft) onto a plywood surface 5 cm (2 in.) thick. Exterior deformation and surface damage are not tested. These in-house tests do not constitute blanket guarantees of invulnerability to damage or destruction.
  • Unless otherwise stated, all figures are for a camera with a fully-charged battery operating at the temperature specified by the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA): 23 ±3 °C (73.4 ±5.4 °F).
  • Nikon reserves the right to change the specifications of the hardware and software described in this manual at any time and without prior notice. Nikon will not be held liable for damages that may result from any mistakes that this page may contain.

 

RX1 ‘NEX’ coming in October – 2 interchangeable lenses

Reporting from Perpignan, one of our good friends in the biz was enjoying the usual wine and sunshine with photojournalists from a French agency (or two). Turns out that right now there’s an RX1 with interchangeable lenses, just what we asked for when the camera was first seen at photokina, roaming the night-time streets of Paris in the hands of no small Magnum name.

The body is exactly the same size and the mount is thought to be a modified E-mount with additional contacts to enable the silent leaf-shutter and iris action which is the hallmark of the RX1 as a ‘stealth’ shooter. It’s possible that the RX1-N (not necessarily its name) lenses will fit other E-mount bodies, but existing E-mount lenses won’t fit the new mini-Leica-style body. But it may also contain a focal plane shutter, as there is such a high potential demand to retrofit Leica M and other vintage lenses to a full frame body of this size.

More we can’t say. The two international press agencies testing the camera right now are keeping very quiet – just like the camera. In fact it’s hard to imagine the RX1 becoming as ‘noisy’ when fired as a NEX (and they are pretty silent when first curtain electronic shutter is used). So a completely new, or partially compatible, mount may be involved. It would be quite fun though if it turned out that over 30 years after the end of the Minolta CLE, a decade after the demise of the Konica RF, and fully 55 years after Minolta’s first abortive bid to make a Leica M body system camera… that Sony put a plain old Leica M mount on the front instead.

SONY DSC

Whatever the case, we gather only ONE lens has so far been released for trials and it’s probably exactly the same 35mm f/2 as the regular RX1/RX1X. A second lens is due by the October launch window and the informed guess is that it will be between 50mm and 90mm, our bets are on the most attractive Leica-heritage option, a 75mm between f/2.5 and f/1.4 in aperture. Those 75mms would have been far more popular on Leica bodies if the viewfinders had been better designed to use them. With electronic viewing, that problem disappears and there is no longer any need to keep to fixed steps like 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, 135mm.

Hasselblad-Stellar-3-Views-small

In the meantime Hasselblad is having fun selling their STELLAR alongside the earlier LUNAR – the Stellar is of course an RX100 (Mark 1) with an exotic wood (eco-friendly, folks?) or carbon fibre handgrip and some funky styling in return for a 50% higher price tag. They’ve even opened a new Hasselblad brand shop in Japan to sell these luxury bits of luggage to connoisseurs.

I’ve been using the RX100II. Strikes me the STELLAR is light years behind before it even got of the launch pad. Maybe there will be a Stellar II by Christmas. Make mine an African Zebrawood grip please.

- David Kilpatrick

Our comments system is not working properly so I’ll add this here:

Our contact was sure it was an RX1-type camera rather than a NEX and that two lenses are involved, one in existence, the second to be tested shortly. There are two test bodies in existence, being trialled by two different picture agencies. However, this is third-hand info – other photographers in the agencies involved were talking about something they had seen in the hands of colleagues, and were in turn overheard by a journalist who is not a hardware specialist, who called me with what he had heard. If this was a full-frame NEX, I think it would have been identified as such and the RX1 would not have been referenced. However, it is also possible that the full-frame NEX (already rumoured) could simply be styled like an RX1. I did ask whether it had an eye-level finder but this was not mentioned and therefore not known. It would be great if it was just a full-frame NEX, able to do cropped images with existing E-mount lenses and to use the LA-EA3 (full frame compatible adaptor for Alpha A-mount lenses. It would also be great if it did turn out to use the near-silent leaf shutter mechanism. Both possibilities are speculation. We’ll know in maybe four weeks’ time.

Alpha 3000 has NEX mount, 20 megapixel, APS-C

The long-rumoured Alpha 3000 was announced earlier in August but placed under a n embargo until August 27th. At the same time, the Press was given an insight into new smartphone related products (also widely rumoured) but again, not allowed to print anything officially.

The A3000 is a DSLR-like body with an electronic 1.44MP viewfinder in a prism-style top bulge, but the body is much slimmer at the lens mount and built to the smallest Alpha form factor as the 3 series indicates (smaller than the A57). Indeed, it’s not so different from the relationship of the very first Alpha 3000 series cameras back at the end of the 1980s. The mount is a regular NEX E-mount and the camera lacks any form of Phase Detection AF, depending on Contrast Detection matched to both existing (18-55mm SEL, etc) and new E-mount lenses. The rear screen is a 230KP fixed type.

18-105-16-70

Along with this first Alpha E-mount body, Sony announced three new E-mount lenses – a 50mm f/1.8 E OSS (£249) in black, CZ Vario-Tessar T* SEL 16-70mm f/4 ZA OSS (£800) and a Sony SEL Power Zoom 18-105mm f/4 G OSS (£500, and also destined to be matched to the next generation of NEX camcorders, with its friendly left hand operated PZ switch and quiet, controllable action). There may also be another power zoom, probably 16-50mm f/2.8 or a similar short wide aperture range, maybe even the 10-18mm in a power zoom housing. The reason these new lenses are made with constant apertures has nothing to do with the ‘Canon f/4 L’ obsession; it’s entirely to do with video work, to enable zooming without brightness change. The power zoom function is also there for video.

Caveat: the 18-105mm has a close focus of 45cm at 18mm, 95cm at 105mm. This indicates that the lens is not a true zoom but a varifocal. Varifocals are not of much use for zooming during a take in video, which goes against the constant aperture and power zoom features. So either the lens has an automatic compensation system which can refocus intelligently during power zoom, or a physical limiter on focus travel (unlikely – what would happen if you focused on 45cm at 18mm, then zoomed to 105mm?). The 16-70mm focuses to 35cm over its zoom range, and is actually capable of close-ups with better than double the image scale (less than a quarter of the frame enlarged) relative to the best the 18-105mm can offer, at 0.23X.

The relatively high level specification of the 16-70mm ZA does not necessarily indicate that there is a higher level of Alpha E-mount body on the way quite yet; at 20.1 megapixels (the same size sensor as the Alpha 58, with some improvements) the performance in terms of imaging may be optimal for a while. photokina 2014 should be when any professional body appears. But this is no way professional – it’s a mere £370 kit with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 E OSS, ISO range 100-16000, full HD video, A58-like viewfinder and general performance. You’ll see it in the shops before the end of September.

Sony’s agenda

Much has been made of Sony’s relationship with Olympus and the possible inclusion of OM-style 5-axis sensor stabilisation in E-mount bodies. Though the A3000 seems to have SteadyShot Inside (not confirmed by our man at the press conference, and not one of the features shown on the swingtags of the first cameras photographed by others) Carl Zeiss, traditionally wary of stabilised lens design, would not be issuing the 16-70mm with OSS unless fixed sensors were going to around in NEX and Alpha E-mount bodies for some time.

Whatever type of in-body stabilisation it has, the A3000 with SS looks like a good companion for existing un-stabilised lenses such as the Sigma 60mm, 30mm and 19mm f/2.8 designs or specialities like the Voigtlander Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95. However, I’m writing this prior to the big release of information this morning. Despite many statements that the camera does have IBIS, I see no rock-solid evidence that it does and I’m very aware that Sony staff if asked whether it has stabilisation could well say ‘yes’ on the basis of the OSS present in the kit 18-55mm lens. So, I treat this information with caution. It would not be the first time an expected feature has not materialised. Check the Sony site if you are reading soon after 5am GMT, I’ll amend this article later in the day.

Update 9am: full details are now widely on the web and there is no IBIS – here’s a complete rundown and sales page from B&H in New York on all the new products, including tech specs.

In the meantime, we know that Sony has been increasingly close to Sigma (a company which also works with Zeiss) and that some ideas may be shared between the two companies. One of the most important ideas promises to end the way your camera system choice locks you in to one company’s products. Sigma has taken the first visible step with its mount switching service. Future Sigma DSLR lenses can be returned to the workshop and their entire rear mount changed, at a cost, to another mount. So you will be able to own your 300-800mm (2014 version…) and if you switch from Canon to Nikon, the lens can switch with you. Now that many regular lenses cost £1000 or more and Sigma’s quality is so highly regarded (35mm f/1.4, MFT and E-mount lenses, DP series) it will make sense to keep the glass for longer. The new USB-interfaced lens calibration kit will also enable such lenses to be user tuned to work with their new host bodies.

The second idea is the switch to E-mount for more products by Sony. There is already a full frame E-mount Sony, the NEX VG-900E, and it’s actually a 24 megapixel still camera shooting raw, as well as a high-end full frame camcorder. It just gets very little attention because it does not look like an SLR or a NEX. This camera has adaptors for other systems of full-frame DSLR lens, as well as a specialised full-frame version of the Alpha mount plain adaptor (LA-EA3 without APS-C internal baffles found in the LA-EA1). However, third party makers have not yet gone the distance. Prime lenses from Samyang and Carl Zeiss are the main E-mount full frame offerings, made for video.

With the Alpha 3000 we see the introduction of an idea I sketched out for film cameras in the 1970s based on discovering the Contarex with its interchangeable 35mm backs. My concept was a camera body with a shutter unit, and a mechanical linkage for slot-in modules including a rangefinder mount, an SLR mirror-box with prism, and a pro mirror-box with interchangeable finders, plus several further front components to switch between Pentax, Minolta, Nikon, Canon and other lenses. Alpa came close to managing this with their very slim bodies and mount adaptors, plus a combination of optical direct finder and prism.

Sony’s future, like Sigma’s, lies in crossing all boundaries. The eventual full-frame, E-mount DSLR-style camera may well have the rumoured 36-50 megapixel sensor, 4K electronic viewfinder, and five-axis sensor stabilisation. It will also have an Alpha lens adaptor and firmware lens recognition good enough to let SSM and SAM in-lens focus motor lenses function adequately with on-sensor focusing. But what it will also have, for certain, is a range of adaptors for other mounts including Canon EF and Nikon G with translated control of AF and aperture (exactly what Sigma has now built in to the front ends of its ‘switchable mount’ new lens series). These will likely be third party products, but Sony has already shown (in 2010, at photokina and other shows) that it has no difficulty welcoming makers such as Metabones and Novoflex on board as co-operative vendors.

What’s more, in theory there will room to build a phase-detect mirror system (SLT) into some adaptors and even to add a focus drive motor. With the right chipset to translate the protocols from body to lenses, or to mechanical functions in the adaptor, almost any lens ever made for any SLR or rangefinder from the last century of miniature camera development will find a home on Alpha E-mount bodies.

Then you will have the ‘DSLR-CSC’ hybrid to end all – the body which can be sold with a Nikon mount, or a Canon mount, or an A-mount – or use its highly optimised future full-frame E-mount optics. To some degree the NEX has already done this but the real impact of the 18mm thick body, compatible with full frame lenses, has yet to be seen.

Caveat – if a full frame model does use sensor stabilisation, mechanical obstructions could mean that a crop factor of somewhere around 1.2X was needed. Sony already has pixel-shifting electronic stabilisation for video, not stills, and this also needs a crop factor to work. It would be easy to imagine the full-frame NEX accepting this limitation, and providing electronic stabilisation on-sensor only, removing moving parts and improving precision/calibration.

The NEX-5T

Sony-NEX5T-flipup

The NEX-5T has the same forward flippable rear screen mechanism as the 5R, one of the advanced over the earlier 5 and 5N designs.

The NEX-5T is the successor to the NEX-5R (5n, 5 etc), available as a black or white body. The 16.1 MP APS-C CMOS sensor NEX-5T will sell for around £600 and adds Near Field Connectivity technology to WiFi. Fifteen of Sony’s PlayMemories ‘apps’ are now available. Features include Hybrid AF (CD-PD on sensor), 180° tilting LCD, and maximum sensitivity of ISO 25600.

See: www.sony.co.uk

Sigma launch mount switching service

SIGMA is going to start a new “Mount Conversion Service” which will enable Sigma to convert the mount of customers’ Sigma Art, Sports and Contemporary lenses from one camera fitting to another.

120-300mm-f2.8

The ranges convertible include the new Sports models such as the 120-300mm f/2.8

“We believe that a lens is not only such a key device for photographic expression, but also an important resource for photographers”, they say. “It has been our hope to develop the lens system that is genuinely photographer-centered, and you can enjoy it for a longer period of time. As an experienced lens manufacturer that has been creating a diverse range of interchangeable lenses, our desire and know-how is crystalized in this unique service. With this service, the mount of your SIGMA lenses can be converted to another mount system, depending on the specification of camera bodies. This service will be available from September, 2013.”

Editor’s comment – this feature of the new Sigma lens designs was not even mentioned at photokina 2012. They have kept something under wraps which must have been planned from a very early date. The main lens unit of all Sigmas in these series has to be effectively independent of the mount, with electronic protocol conversion chips to handle aperture and focus operation while different rear assemblies change the bayonet.

“Interchangeable lens camera systems appear to be superior in offering photographers more options, allowing them to change lenses freely and have more flexible photographic expression”, states the Sigma release. “Nevertheless, each interchangeable lens is limited with the specification of different camera systems. In other words, you can’t use those lenses if you change it from one type to another. Although lenses are the key devices to create photographic expression, it is a shame that there is no system that purely sets the standard based on the functions and individual qualities of interchangeable lenses.

“In this circumstance, SIGMA is going to start the “Mount Conversion Service” from 2nd September 2013. Our goal is to provide more freedom for photographers so that they can select new camera bodies without worrying about the conventional limitation around the mount system of cameras, and keep on using their current lenses by adjusting them to fit with a new mechanism.”

For the details, please check the Sigma website http://www.sigma-global.com/en/lenses/cas/service/mcs/index.html * This “Mount Conversion Service” is different from a normal repair. In order to apply for the service, please contact your nearest authorized subsidiary / distributor of SIGMA.

Sony updates RX1 and RX100, adds new flash

In a move which will not delight many owners of the 2012-released RX1 and RX100 cameras, Sony has chosen to update both of them in fairly subtle ways which improve performance without changing the basic lens specifications at the heart of each camera. The makeover to produce the RX100 II is more thorough, and includes a tilting rear screen, a new back-illuminated version of the 1.0 inch CMOS sensor, and a Multi Function Accessory Shoe which can power an electronic viewfinder or other accessories. It also features WiFi and Near Field Communication for transferring those tiny 20 megapixel files to your smartphone, perfect for direct upload to Facebook (just shoot Small JPEGs instead, keep the big raw files untransferred).

rx100-vII

You can view the European press release about the RX100 II here.

The RX1R is less thoroughly upgraded, as it’s basically an RX1 with the low-pass (AA) filter removed. Got to admit that we could have sworn Sony originally said, at photokina, the RX1 did not have an AA filter. Its performance seemed to back that up. Then, in the release version (which was very different from the September 2012 pre-production models, even in control details) this was moderated to say that there was a special low strength AA filter. Now, in the RX1R, the AA filter is definitely removed and some new processing added to combat the resulting increase in moiré and colour artefact production which always goes with the absence of the filter. Nothing else is changed; the two models are very similar to Nikon’s D800 and D800E, and like them will be available side by side. The RX1R does not replace the RX1. Whether owners of RX1 will see it quite that way, who knows?

At this level of camera, there will be plenty of buyers who want to have BOTH bodies. Just as, with the RX100, despite version II not having the imaginary extra lens range dreamed about by those who don’t realise what’s involved, there will be many buyers for the new model who will pass the original on to a family member or keep it as a spare.

See the press release about the RX1R here.

Finally, there is a new HVL-F43M flashgun with the now familiar rotating head design first seen on the HVL-F58AM. This slightly smaller but almost as powerful flash unit has the Multi Function Accessory Shoe (and can now therefore be used with both the above Cyber-Shots as well as NEX-6, A99, A58 and future SLT/NEX/Cyber-Shot models). It has an LED light for video, also useful for modelling when using flash off camera – but get our latest issue of Cameracraft, No 4, to read my detailed article on how the quality of LED light compares to other sources!

A question which remain unanswered is – when will Sony introduce the shoe fitting GPS module which is already provided for in the pinouts of the Multi Function Shoe, on the NEX-6, RX1, Alpha 58 etc? Having this on the market would certainly make the RX100 II even more of a must-have upgrade.

Be warned (perhaps by our review of the Alpha 58) that the promoted Tri-Luminos colour display compatibility – a change in the camera’s RGB sensor filters and processing – may not necessarily make for better colour with other devices, or for printing. It’s a good reason to buy a new Sony television but not an especially good reason to prefer the new models over the old non-Tri-Luminos type.

Finally, having removed the AA filter from the RX1 to create the RX1R, we must await the arrival (or non-arrival…) of the Sony Alpha 99R. That would be logical now that a refresh to new models seems to be called for after only 6 to 12 months on the market. Perhaps that is a bit cynical. What often happens in this industry is that a product will be revised when stocks of all the components for the original batches are used up, and not enough finished product is in the pipeline to satsify predicted demand.

The RX1 and the RX100 have both been runaway successes worldwide and it may be that new production was commissioned and presented a chance for hardware changes. Firmware updates for existing owners? A second priority, but don’t give up hope…

- David Kilpatrick

To discuss this on the Photoclubalpha Forum, go to (but remember it may take a day to be activated if newly registered):

http://www.photoclubalpha.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=7770

20/20 vision – Sony Alpha 58 review

In the last year two cameras have been through my hands and impressed more than any others with the quality of their sensors. Those cameras were as different as they could be – the full frame Canon EOS 6D, and the pocketable Sony Cyber-shot DSC RX100. They have one thing in common, 20 megapixel sensors.

Of course there is no connection; a 24 x 36mm Canon sensor and a 8.8 x 13mm Sony sensor are very different. But if you shoot at ISO 125 on both cameras, and process from raw with a normally exposed scene, you will be hard pressed to tell the results apart.

SONY DSC

So, when Sony – proving a giant-killer with the 1.0” format RX100 sensor – creates a budget DSLT model with an APS-C 20 megapixel sensor it would be reasonable to expect that this would outperform the RX100 and in the process prove superior to the 24 megapixel Alpha 77, 65 and NEX-7. It might even match the Alpha 99.

The Alpha 58 was announced at the end of February 2013, and some major websites had still not reviewed it by June. This is the first new Sony APS-C silicon for two years. It’s not found in any other body. Why the lack of urgent interest?

Perhaps, like me, the entry-level grade of the A58 has been responsible. It’s by far the worst Alpha body ever manufactured, and the first to have a plastic lens mount where machined metal is normally used. The whole physical feel of this Thai-made camera is inferior; it even has a slightly rough external texture which picks up handling marks the moment a store customer (or cynical on-line orderer intending to try, but return for a refund) so much as touches it.

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It has a relatively low-resolution, small rear screen (2.7 inches and 460,800 pixels) which is in the simplest and most restricted kind of up/down angle hinged mount. Against this economy, though, you need to balance a better OLED electronic viewfinder based on a one-inch 1,440,000 pixel display and a change to the new Sony Multi Function Accessory Shoe (without a protective cap, and without the adaptor for the Minolta/Sony Auto Lock shoe). It also uses the larger FM-500H battery common to all other current Alpha models, not the smaller FM-50H used by the NEX and also by some previous Alphas like the A55.

What is really new about the A58 is the price. I was not interested in the camera, though curious about the new sensor, because it was $600 US or £499 UK with the most basic lens , a new 18-5mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM II with quieter and improved internal focus motor (delivered, like Canon kit 18-55mms, without a lens hood). Then while helping a professional friend decide how to replace an A350 used for some unique underwater photography where the Quick Live View AF function has no equivalent in other makes, I looked into the A58.

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It was on sale, in Britain, including VAT and properly sourced from Sony, for under £350. The actual price of the kit was only £291 before added VAT sales tax. This was £100 cheaper than the lowest price of the RX100, less than any other DSLR on the market with anything like the same specification. Bear in mind what a replacement Sony battery costs (around £50) and what an 18-55mm fetches (officially more, but in practice around £100 new) and this body was coming in at about £150. That’s a point and shoot compact price.
So I bought one.

First impressions

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The packaging for the A58 cuts down on many things – recent Alphas have been festooned with stickers, this one has a single swingtag and a sticker on the rear LCD promoting connection to Sony’s webserver to obtain PlayMemories Home, the kiddy-friendly name for what is probably quite functional software, if you happen to use a Windows PC.

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When you have charged the battery and loaded it, the first time you turn on a similar message fills the rear screen. Everything works as you expect from an Alpha, though some mysterious glitch stepped the entered date back by two days. You can only set to complete minutes, not seconds. Some defaults are set to ‘on’ including Smile Shutter and Auto Object Framing, and for my use these were disabled and the recording mode set to shoot RAW+JPEG, sRGB.

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The supplied lens is a cheap product glitzed up by the addition of a metal microskin on the front bezel, behind the rotating rubber rimmed zoom and focus tube, 55mm filter thread. The SAM focus is quieter than the original version. The plastic-on-plastic mounting action is smooth enough, but when changing between the 30mm SAM macro (very noisy and jerky motor in comparison) engagement of the contact array was not always positive and the lens had to be twisted back and forth once with the lock pressed to enable AF.

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The A58 is set to use electronic first curtain and SteadyShot Inside sensor-based stabilisation, both switched via the main menus. The Function button, which can access most regularly used settings does not reach these directly (a second menu screen is involved, very easy to use). There are also direct access button-positions round the rear controller for the important Drive, Picture Effect and White Balance settings, and a dedicated ISO button close to the shutter release. These can be customised to a degree, like the stop-down/intelligent preview button on the camera front which can be changed to work as a focus magnifier.

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What’s initially surprising is that the shutter sound is noisier than many cameras with flipping mirrors. It’s not a pleasant sound either, mechanical in a clockwork-motor way. It all happens after the shot has been captured, as you can tell if you make a long exposure. Maybe the lightweight mostly plastic construction of the body, with its minimal metal skeleton, fails to damp the sound.

The viewfinder has the same contrast and dark detail failings as the A77, and in some ways the old A55 finder provides a more useful view. The rear screen is not very bright, and there is no auto brightness setting, just a 5-step manual control. In return, whether you use the LCD or the EVF makes on a tiny 10 shot difference to the 700 frames expected from one battery using the former. This stamina is double that of an EVF camera using the smaller battery type and restores a more than acceptable battery life per charge to Sony’s consumer entry level.

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What is excellent about the finder is the ocular. It has been designed to give extreme eye relief – 26.5mm from the eyepiece glass, 23mm from the rubber frame surround. This compares to 19mm/18mm for the same data on the A55 (eyepiece glass not well protected from dust and light ingress, but eye needs to be close) and 27mm/22mm for the A77 (very deeply recessed and shaded ocular, reasonable eye distance). Part of this is down to display module sizes: 1.0 inch for the A58, 1.2 inch for the A55, 1.3 inch for the A77. Matters are further confused by the A55 failing to use all its EVF for the image, so the eye also sees a large near-black surround except when using menus which then expand to fill it.

Overall, the EVF looks like a view which is A55 size but A77 quality, like using a cropped section of the A77/99 2.4 megapixel EVF module. Sony has made this much easier to use with spectacles, or with the camera held an inch away from your eye. So although it’s not the best finder ever, it may be one of the best choices for anyone who has trouble with eyepoint. I found the EVF very blue at its neutral point, and set two notches of warming up to match the eye’s view.

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The controls are no different from any other Alpha, they don’t feel rough or weak, and every button push got a response as expected.

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The cover for the single dual purpose SD/MSDuoPro card slot is not a tight seal, and does not need firm action to open. The synthetic rubber single seal door over the microphone jack (no manual level control), Micro USB matching the RX100, and Micro HDMI ports is a good flush fit. There is also a Minolta/Sony unique DC in socket with similar cover.

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What’s missing is the old Minolta and later on Sony remote control socket. Instead there’s a pretty clunky wired remote which works via the micro USB port. It looks like a version of a Chinese generic. This connection offers the only way to get wireless remote control, with a suitable device, as the camera lacks the IR receiver and has no Drive Mode for it.

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The body shape in the hand is just a little more cramped than the A55, far more so than the A580, both cameras we have and both ‘replaced’ in the Alpha line up by this one model. I’d say it was less of a good fit to my hand than the classic Minolta Dimage series bridge cameras, or the Nikon 1 V2. Both of these were around to compare directly.

The critical bit

Then after getting acquainted with the camera, comes the question of the sensor performance. Here, the viewfinder gave the first clue that unlike the ‘sweet sixteen’ CMOS this 20MP newcomer was not going to move any goalposts. In domestic lighting, the level of noise in the EVF is higher than the old A55 and comparable to the A77.

However, I chose to compare the A58 with the RX100, because of the great advances made in the RX100’s very small 2.7X sensor. The results show an interesting divergence from minimum (100 for A58, 125 native for RX100) ISO to maximum. There is almost no advantage to the A58 up to ISO 400. Both cameras, with similarly adjusted raw conversion, yield clean images and it’s not even easy to tell ISO 400 from 200 or 100. If you click the images below, you’ll access a full size original conversion from raw (ACR).

A58, ISO 100, full sun, shadow to highlight from raw

RX, ISO 100, deep shadow to full sun on white, from raw

A58, ISO 400, full sun on wide tone range, from raw

RX100, ISO 400, wide tone range in full sun, from raw

As you increase the speed, the 58 rapidly shows its advantage and by ISO 1600 has both a structure which looks finer in terms of granularity, and with far less chroma noise. Where a carefully processed ISO 800 from the RX100 might match a carelessly handled 800 from the Alpha, at 1600 it’s very difficult indeed to close the gap. By 6400 the RX100 is not really useful but the 58 can still deliver a fairly normal looking shot – it does begin to look like a desperate measure. Then you have 12,800 and the absolutely pointless 160,000 top setting which seems to be there for advertising purposes.

Taking into account differences in colour rendering, the advantage of the larger sensor is levelled if the RX100 file is reduced to 4500 x 3000 pixels and moderate chroma noise reduction applied. In relative terms, the small sensor is better, because it’s actually only a little over one quarter of the size of APS-C.

Compared to the 16 megapixel Sony sensor (NEX-5n, A55 and many later models as well as Pentax and Nikon variants) the 20 also fares pretty well. It has higher levels of luminance noise but minimal chroma noise. It’s not easy to reduce the luminance NR without softening detail, when using Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. It does not harm sharp detail much if left alone; if this sensor actually has an AA filter, it’s very weak.

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This a MacBeth ColorChecker rendered using the official sRGB values.

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This is an ISO 200 shot on the A58 with the greyscale white balanced to match the above, Iridient Raw Developer conversion using Iridient’s A58 profile. See later comments on colour and reds.

As for dynamic range, it falls off as the ISO in increased. At ISO 100 or 400 a typical high contrast sunlit scene is perfectly recorded, with only bright specular highlights clipping to 255-255-255. It can handle everything from shadows on dark areas to direct light on white. A few practical comparison shots show that the RX100 can do exactly the same things – indeed, precisely the same areas clip at the highlight end.

This simply indicates to me that Sony has matched the processes used in the two cameras against a common exposure and contrast standard. I’d have the rate the JPEG engine of the RX100 a little better than the Alpha, and images seem to need less work. Against the Alpha 99, the 58 gains some significant processing speed in raw converters as it’s producing 20 megapixel 12-bit files compared to 24 megapixel 14-bit.

Click this for the full size to see detail.

Compare this RX100 shot. It’s interesting.

A hidden benefit of the 20 megapixel sensor is that if you use Adobe Camera Raw, this program offers a range of preset optimised output sizes converted directly from raw, which can be previewed at 100% of their actual pixel size before conversion. All 24 megapixel cameras have this as their largest output size, all you can do is downsample. 20 megapixel cameras offer a 25 megapixel output option, as do 16 or 18 megapixel models. The RX100 has already proved to me that it can make a 25 megapixel image that’s hard to tell from a native A77/99 image. The same goes for the Alpha 58. It can be set to export to this larger size, and if you use a top grade lens and low ISO, the result will be better than a native 24 megapixel at higher ISOs with a medium-quality lens.

Overall, I find it hard to rate the new 20 megapixel sensor as better than either the classic 16 megapixel ‘sweet spot’ sensor or the maximum 24 megapixel APS-C, but it is as competent as either of these in its own right. I guess the truth is that at all these resolutions, superb image quality is possible.

Other aspects of performance

Since the A58 uses the 15-point, 3-cross AF sensor which has been proven ever since it first appeared in the A580 and A55 it has identical performance; fast, very accurate AF down to EV -1 (50mm f/1.4). The exposure metering is, again, the familiar 1200-zone Sony system and works down to -2EV.

The actual focusing mechanism works no better with SAM or SSM lenses than with screw drive. It’s not the best ‘old’ mechanism in there and it lacks fast/slow AF setting, but it’s fast for certain. In low light although AF will lock, it needs a good target. Throughout my use of the camera I found the focus the least accurate and consistent of any Alpha body I’ve used, leading me to question whether I had accidentally set the lens to MF, so many pictures were clearly focused on some other plane than the subject, nearly always a definite back focus. The AF module is officially the same as the A55, A580 and so on. I can’t help thinking it is the same design but perhaps, like the rest of the camera, built to a budget.

The A58 couldn’t really back focus this shot at f/8 but it took three shots to get one sharp.

Click the RX100 (f/5.6) example too, to see the real difference.

Switching between rear screen and EVF using the eye sensors, or if you have the rear screen off just turning on the EVF, is good on this camera. Its balance tends to prevent the eyepiece sitting against your chest, and thus avoids accidental activation, but it’s always brought the EVF into action by the time your eye is close enough to use the finder.

Regrettably the EVF and rear screen both lack the instantly visible high resolution needed to know whether your image is pin-sharp. Even the far superior finders and screens of the A77 and A99 do not give you the same awareness of this as an optical finder. The good news is that Focus Peaking can be turned on. This really isn’t sensitive or accurate enough unless you magnify the image, and much of the time, you simply don’t have time to do this.

So, the A58 is capable of pin-sharp images and you can be sure under the right conditions with the right technique that you won’t be short changed out the 20 megapixels you expected. But a lot of the time for everyday shooting it’s not very good at getting AF pin-sharp, and those same 20 megapixels do their best to show any error clearly.
In practical situations, ISO 400 is as noise-free as ISO 100 and gives you the chance to use a smaller aperture for more depth of field. The 18-55mm SAM II lens is not very sharp at 55mm wide open, and it proved optimistic to expect f/6.3 or f/7.2 to be much better. The old ‘one stop down for zooms’ rule works well enough. The 20 megapixel sensor shows signs of slightly softening at f/11 so the sweet spot for me has to be around f/9 or f/10.

The A58 has slightly warm tones overall and pinkish flesh colour

The RX100 on the same scene is more neutral or cool

You can click the images above for full size versions (same applies to all those shown in link frames like this).

As for colour, you’ll be happy if you have always like Canon DSLRs. not so happy if you were either a Sony (sunny!) or Minolta (full spectrum) sensor colour fan. This sensor shows every sign of having relatively weak RGB colour filters and a non-linear response, with underexposed shadows on higher ISOs in daylight tending towards magenta. It’s rather too easy to get putty-pink skin tones and a certain lack of subtelty in sky gradations, though blues and greens are not bad. Subjects like red flowers test the colour discrimination of the sensor to the limit.

Holyrood gardens

It’s truly intense – but is it realistic? Camera profiles for raw conversion may tame this.

Let’s just say that every other current Sony Alpha model, and many past ones, will yield more visible difference between close hues. This is what you might expect from the more densely populated 20 megapixel sensor but, as ever, I’m left wondering why the little RX100 seems able to yield better colour (whatever DxOMark.com may say – but they also put the low light ability of the RX100 way below its actual performance).

At present there are no camera profiles available when converting files using Adobe Camera Raw, and the Adobe Standard colour seems to handle reds from the A58 badly (this is why I refer to Canon – the reds look much the same as problem Canon reds of the past). I don’t believe that red paint, red clothes, red street signs and red flowers are all are one type of red and when clipping warning is turned on, almost all the reds clip.

Shutter and flash

The shutter of the A58 is able to synchronise short-duration fast triggered flash, such as a thyristor camera top gun, up to 1/250th on manual without any shutter curtain clipping; at 1/320th, a shadow intrudes slightly on the frame. This is a better performance than indicated in the specifications, but for studio flash (mains powered) I would recommend working at 1/125th and for Sony/Minolta dedicated flash at 1/160th.

The shutter itself does not operate or make any noise whatsoever until AFTER the picture is captured when you use ‘Electronic First Curtain ON’ setting. The capping shutter blind has a cycle (close and return) of approximately 230ms overall in single frame mode resetting the camera ready for the next shot, or 115ms for continuous shooting which fits in with 8 frames a second fastest (cropped) frame rate. If you use the mechanical first shutter curtain, this adds exactly 50ms or 1/20th of a second to your release lag, which is not as easy to measure but seems to be in the order of only 20ms (1/50th).

Overall, this makes the A58 one of the most hair-trigger responsive cameras you can possibly own for capturing action – or would if the AF were faster and more reliable. Pre-set focus, use manual exposure, and you can trigger exposures with this camera as fast as you can think – just like the A99.

With its built-in flash or dedicated Sony flash, there’s the usual small delay caused by preflash. You may think the shot is being delayed more, because the shutter operates after the exposure, and then as the finder returns to life you get about 1/30th of a second of ‘review’ of the shot taken even with the 2s or 5s (etc) image review disabled. This happens all the time with the camera, the first frame or two of the finder refresh is a fleeting glimpse of your captured shot, and it’s useful. With flash you may be viewing a dark scene, the finder itself is blacked out when your flash fires, but this sudden bright image looks almost like a delayed flash through the eyepiece. Of course it is not, this is just an impression.

The built-in pop up flash becomes a rather aggressive AF illuminator when flash is active and the camera has trouble finding enough light for an AF lock. You certainly do see the effect of this through the finder, a surprisingly long and bright burst of light. It must drain the battery fast.

Flash exposure, long a problem with Alphas, seems predictable. A pile of black camera bags produces a full exposure (histogram hitting the buffers at the right hand end) while a white paper document in the middle of the frame results in one stop under. No doubt users will find specific flashguns or situations which produce wildcard exposure. That’s why you should always enable DRO+ Automatic or something like level 3 when shooting with flash. This dynamic range contrast optimisation process can produce great flash pictures out of the camera but remember it only works well at lower ISO settings, do not go over 800 and expect DRO+ to keep you smooth noise-free image.

The A58 appears to allow DRO to be used at higher ISOs, which earlier cameras often lock out because of its effect on shadow noise. However, both the printed manual and the downloadable handbook contain many inaccuracies and ambiguities; even Sony’s specification for the camera on-line has problems, listing standard and magnified views in the finder instead of eyepiece glass and surround against the two eye-point figures.

Wireless flash operates in the usual way, with the pop-up flash acting as a commander once paired by first fitting the remote flash, turning on, selecting WL Flash mode, and removing the remote. This is now a 20-year old Minolta technology updated – something which took Canon fifteen years to catch up with, after which they progressed further. The Alpha wireless flash works but it’s frozen in time. At least, with the optional adaptor, you can use earlier Minolta and Sony flashguns of the HS(D) generation and later.

HS is the high speed burst mode (long duration resembling continuous light) and the A58 can use HS flash at all shutter speeds up to 1/4,000th. The A58 has a useful Slow Sync function which delivers and automatic dragged shutter setting according to the available light, and a Rear Curtain sync as well. The camera may, with the built-in flash, switch to a slow longer recycling time even if you load a fresh battery when shooting flash intensively. This is to prevent the camera (not the flash) from overheating.

Studio compatibility

One reason I obtained an A58 to look at was because Ian Cartwright, a friend of mine who shoots models and babies underwater, had obtained an Alpha 580 on my advice to replace an A350 only to find that this camera forces a strange blackout delay of almost half a second when using any dedicated flash. The A350’s otherwise similar Quick Live View does not have this peculiar firmware fault. I can confirm that the A58 fires in real time, and unlike either of the other two models, can be used with PocketWizard or an infrared trigger. That’s because the finder view can be switched to ‘Setting Effect OFF’ which defeats exposure simulation and gives you a bright view even in manual with setting like 1/125 and f/11 under dim modelling or ambient light. The A58 can be used in the studio as easily as the A99, because of its ISO hot shot compatibility and this feature.

Dried roses

For this studio shot I chose not to use flash, it was lit by my Interfit 3200 tungsten outfit (great for video) instead. The colour rendering matters little because the image is adjusted in processing to give this look.

As to whether you would ever want to use an EVF camera for studio work, that’s another matter. I have bought a replacement Alpha 900 after three months trying to use EVF for studio set-ups and temporarily reverting to my A700. It’s not just the quality of what you see when composing and adjusting your studio shot (stray hairs over a face or a clothing fibre landing on your still life are just not visible with EVF) it’s the need to have power saving permanently turned off to keep the screen or finder awake as you do all the lighting and reflectors, background and subject adjustments. Nothing is more annoying than having to half-press the shutter to wake up your camera every time you go back to check – and with the A58, the shutter release is so light it’s easy to take a shot instead of waking the finder view.

The A99 can be used tethered and plugged in to AC, with a USB cable to a remote capture Mac or PC, and a live feed to an HDTV monitor. Do that and the business of setting up and adjusting a studio shoot becomes far easier with live view. I just don’t do enough work of any kind to justify that, it’s quicker to keep using the old familiar glass prism. It looks as if the A58 can be used the same way, joining the A77 and A99 by having PC Remote capability and HDMI previewing, while the A900/850/700 are the only other choices in Alpha history able to use PC Remote.
This does open the door to using a netbook, for example, as an intervalometer timer or remote release. There is no App for iOS or Android but the PC Remote control panel is well designed to fit a smartphone. There is no Wifi in the camera (it has good compatibility with EyeFi cards, invoking special display icons).

Video

Due to the softness and lack of AF sensitivity of the 18-55mm SAM II lens, my couple of quick test videos in real situations were not stunning but also not too bad. The sound quality is reasonable without plugging in my Rode Video Mic, stabilisation of video is very good indeed, and by using the dedicated video setting I was able to set my own shutter and aperture. You can also lock out the movie button except when the mode dial is set to video, preventing accidental video clips.

If you want the camera for video, either the 18-135mm SAM lens or even better the 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM (quiet fast focus) will do much better than the 18-55mm. The A58 lacks the highest quality video encoding of the A77 and A99, but you can get the vital requirement of 25/30fps at 1080p, the second highest level found on other Alphas. The clip above is at best quality with the 18-55mm; it took some fairly extreme action (the car driving right towards the lens) to persuade the AF to bother to try to track, most of the time it was telling me, hey, that’s good enough, no need to refocus… or even focus to start with.

Special functions

Although the A58 has been trimmed down in some ways, other aspects have been improved, compared to past entry-level cameras. There is no wireless remote drive mode, and no 2sec self-timer, so unless you buy the unusual Micro USB wired release you have to use a 10sec timer for shake-free tripod work.

Bracketing is only three frames, but the range is now large – 0.3EV, 0.7EV, 1EV, 2EV or 3EV steps. HDR Auto can also use a 6EV span (±3EV). You can not control the auto ISO range, but it’s a reasonable 100-3200. If you shoot JPEG and choose multishot noise reduction, an auto 6400 may be selected, and some of the Scene modes may also enter this range. But if you shoot raw, you have to select ISOs from 4000 to 160,000 manually which makes them harder to get by mistake.

There are many picture effects, both single and multi-shot, in the A58. One of the more interesting is Rich Tone Black and White, which uses three shots to build a gradation resembling a traditional darkroom print.
The sensor does not appear to support sub-frames, or cropped raw files, in the same way the A99 or Nikon D600 can do. The maximum frame rate for continuous shooting is 5fps for full size raws, but the buffer is minimal and the best I could get was four frames in a burst before a major pause and intermittent resumption, never at 5fps. On raw you get click-click-click, off to make coffee, click, take a walk round the block, click, remember to turn the lights off before going to bed. It’s that bad. JPEG Fine, which delivers 4 frames at 5fps, then becomes intermittent and variable in capture speed but a little faster than raw.

To get anything better, you must convert the camera into a 5 megapixel 3X factor (2X crop of the 1.5X sensor) by setting it to T8 (Tele 8fps) continuous mode on the main control dial. This delivers about 8.1fps for 24 frames on a 95MB/s SanDisk card, then slows to capture around 5-6fps in a regular pattern of two frames at 8fps, hesitation, two more and so on. On a slower card, Transcend SDHC, I got 12 frames continuous and a slower more regular tail. Memory card speed is clearly critical for getting the best from the A58.

Since you can’t get a 5MB cropped raw, exactly how this mode functions is a bit of a mystery as JPEG images are produced via an intermediate raw file – that’s how things work. So inside the camera, 24 frames can be processed and cropped in 2 seconds – but it can’t even manage one second of unprocessed raws at 5fps. This indicates the processor is fast and the input buffer big enough, it’s the output buffer and card interface which causes the bottleneck. Card interfaces and drive assemblies are third party products normally bought in by the camera maker, while the main processor is their own (or a dedicated design based on a Fujitsu module or other OEM).

This camera is extremely low cost and I think this is simply one area where cost savings ended up reducing what could have been a great specifiction and performance.

Digital and Clear Image Zoom

The A58 has a Zoom button, like a Cyber-shot DSC RX100’s zoom control that goes beyond the mechanical range of the zoom. Since you can’t go beyond the zoom on the lens itself, you go to the tele extreme, press the zoom button and a bar appears on the displays. Up to 1.4X magnification, you get a cropped shot (JPEG only) but this crop fills the EVF/screen and is enlarged by interpolation to 20MP. Up to 2X, you get Clear Image Zoom which is profiled or custom interpolation, similar to software packages which can enlarge JPEGs better if they have a profile for the camera used. Up to 4X, the rest is ordinary Digital Zoom which means the resulting 20MP image has really been created from a 1.25MP area of the sensor, and it shows.

Fine JPEG, normal shot

Interpolated Zoom 1.4X. 18-55mm at 55mm.

Clear Image at 1.9X (all at f/8)

Digital zoom to 4X.

I made some tests with the 18-55mm and its vague focusing and overall modest quality lowered the bar for the digitally zoomed range. Then I tried with my extremely sharp Sigma 70mm macro. I think the 1.4X range is acceptable for all normal uses, the 2X range is almost acceptable, beyond this the softness overpowers any possible reason to want a 20MP output file. There is a mark on the zoom bar showing the change from resized and Clear Image (1.0-2X) to Digital Zoom (2.0-4.0X) but I was unable to get the zoom to fix on 2.0X, instead it insisted on using 1.9X or 2.1X but placed the 2.1X on the ‘safe’ side of the mark.

70mm macro, raw shot at f/10

Fine JPEG of same ISO 200 shot.

1.4X interpolated zoom.

2X Clear Image zoom

4X Digital Zoom. Still 20MP…

As expected, the A58 has Sony’s excellent sweep panorama mode, and just about every other Sony original technology around from face recognition and smile shutter through to auto framing (an intelligent crop which keeps a copy of your uncropped JPEG too) and AF object tracking. Its Intelligent Auto and Super Auto modes will serve the beginner and general family photographer well.

The A58 has sensor cleaning and does vibrate the sensor on shutdown, not on switch on; this is not listed in the specification, which just mentions the anti-static coating. Manual cleaning is possible and Sony make two notes of interest – they advise blower cleaning the back of the mirror before lowering it (so clean both this and the sensor in one step) and they say that you can not shoot with the mirror raised. My camera had no sensor spots on delivery.

Future expansion

The A58 shares with the NEX-6 and Cyber-shot DSC RX1 the new Multi Function Shoe, and some of the accessories for this shoe are futureware. All these cameras lack the GPS found in the A99. The Multi Function Shoe’s interface includes pins to connect a GPS device and record location data as you shoot.

alpha99-shoe

Despite my affection for the robust qualities of the little Alpha 55, the Alpha 58 does more and when armed with my 16-80mm CZ lens makes a good travel camera. For that, I want to have GPS. So of all the possible future accessories for the shoe, this is the one I hope Sony will produce soon. Other possible accessories are a Wifi remote shooting module (the interface could allow image preview remotely) and a PocketWizard or similar wireless flash trigger. The shoe interface might even enable uncompressed video streaming to external recording devices, or back up between the camera and an external SD card or USB stick. It can also feed an external larger video monitor or a mic/headphone module which might have auto gain over-ride for sound recording – or perhaps these functions may be combined one day in a video/audio adaptor.

These are the prospects which this one change in the Alpha system brings, yet there is no sign that Sony is rolling out MFAS accessories. It’s also true that each camera’s own MFAS may have missing pins, or differently assigned pins (that would be seriously bad planning). You can not, for example, use the EVF of the RX1 on the A99 shoe, though both cameras have 24 megapixel sensors and the same EVF display resolution. The camera does not recognise it.

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Made in Thailand – not a bad thing, and Thailand has a big camera industry with Nikon, Sony and others. But this does feel like the lowest cost, most pared-down offering ever in the Sony DSLR/SLT lineage.

Changing the market

It is a pity that a camera with a brand new sensor and many advanced features and functions should ever have been designed down to the lowest price-level by reducing the specification of far too many components, from the lens mount and body itself to the displays and the buffer and card interface.

Sony’s manual and general approach to the camera menus and built-in help indicate that it’s targeted at what Americans would call a ‘soccer mom’ market. Well, your own kids are always beautiful even if the rest of the internet community groans inwardly every time another snapshot of infant overfeeding is posted to support how wonderful dad’s new camera is. They are always polite and agree.

Same goes for this camera – for those who acquire it as a new addition to the family, it will be the best thing ever made. And in some ways they will be right, nothing else comes close for the money. Unlike the sprogs, the Alpha 58 has inherited many desirable genes but suffered from malnutrition during its gestation. It could have been a robust, capable semi-pro camera in the tradition of the A580, the last Sony Alpha to have an optical finder.
Perhaps the 20 megapixel sensor will appear in a higher level body. How about an A68? For me that would be close to home (look it up on a UK road map!).

- David Kilpatrick

Frank’s a definite Alpha Male

We shall be sending Frank Doorhof one of our original and rare Alpha Male T-shirts, in black, though I’m not sure we have anything quite large enough to fit him – which goes for his personality too. He’s a great workshop presenter, overcoming technical problems by just cracking on with whatever will work best. At Edinburgh for The Flash Centre’s full day fashion seminar with Frank on May 24th, the last thing I expected was to be using the same camera as Frank. All workshop leaders use Canon, right?

Frank now uses Sony Alpha 99, and he had a lot to say about it. Since we already know the benefits of the Alpha system and the current Sony full frame 24MP sensor with its extreme 14-bit dynamic range, most of what he said was not new, but it’s rare to hear a course leader extol the virtues of a system which not one of his delegates (apart from me) was using. He did rather talk down the value of CZ lenses (while using a 24-70mm CZ) and praised the quality of his vintage Minolta 85mm f/1.4 and 35-200mm xi, but I can’t argue with that as I’ve made similar decisions. Indeed, the 35-200mm owes much of its reputation to results we published seven years ago. I was beating him at his own game by using my SAM 28-75mm f/2.8 – cheaper by half than the CZ 24-70mm, and extremely sharp.

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We had a rare sunny clear day in a run of mixed weather, though it was cold and windy on the roof terrace of the Glasshouse Hotel in central Edinburgh. The location provided strong backgrounds and details. Simon Burfoot and Chris Whittle from The Flash Centre brought along the Ranger (battery location) and Ranger Quadra (lightweight version) flash systems with Elinchrom Skyport wireless triggers. Of course, in the past if you turned up to a workshop with an Alpha body, you were unable to use the wireless flash connection unless you also remembered to bring a standard hotshoe adaptor. With the A99 (and NEX-6, RX1 and future models) the new Alpha multi function accessory shoe works directly with triggers.

Frank put everything into using just one light source, and used no reflectors, aiming instead for dramatic lighting by underexposing the main scene but lifting his model subject Nadine by local flash. This was achieved with the 44cm rigid square softbox, newly re-introduced to the Elinchrom system (I have used the original grey one for over 20 years – you only need to buy these expensive accessories once in a lifetime). Fitted with a honeycomb but no diffusing scrim, the single lighting head with this light shaper put a tightly controlled pool of light on to his subject. Though it’s easy to use digital SLRs as a pre-test light metering and flash balancing method, Frank works with a Sekonic flash and ambient light meter able to take incident, reflected and partial spot readings. It is very similar to the discontinued classic Minolta Flashmeter IV/V, with the same 1/10th stop accuracy and display of contrast and memorised values. If I was doing this type of work, I would use my Flashmeter IV, but I would also use its calibration function to match it to specific ISO settings on the A99.

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Frank’s wife Annewiek used multiple video cameras to film the workshop, as Frank provides his on-line tutorial material through Scott Kelby’s training site. Here you can see one set-up as he explains how he’s seeing the location, addressing the used of the glass window wall, avoiding unwanted reflections, placing Nadine in the shade then adding the flash to match an underexposed daylight scene. To achieve the required settings, he used ISO 100 at apertures around f/16 to f/22, with a 1/160th shutter speed, and mechanical first curtain shutter. I also followed these settings, which are not kind to sensor dust spots. Anyone using a Nikon D600 would have been in serious trouble! Even my ‘clean’ A99 which never needs any spot removal at my regular optimum working apertures between f/8 and f/13 showed a few visible spots at f/18. I would have used ISO 50, which I consider to be an advantage of the A99, and trusted shutter speeds to 1/250th with this camera for flash sync. But Frank was dealing with photographers some of whom had cameras incapable of shooting at less than ISO 200 or synchronising with studio flash at 1/250th without a slight second curtain crop to the frame. It would not have been fair to demonstrate using the advantages of the Alpha 99…

I did have in my bag, and normally carry, a 4X ND filter. With the Alpha 99, fitting an ND filter has absolutely zero effect on the viewfinder brightness, or the quality of view in sunlight. After all, sunshine with a 4X ND is just like a cloudy day in brightness, and you have no problems on a cloudy day. You can work with an ND just as ‘transparently’ as you can use an UV filter. An alternative would have been to use a polarising filter, which can also enhance the dramatic ‘dark sky – bright subject’ mix. However, Frank wisely kept clear of this. Polarisers have some pretty horrible effects on fabrics, skin and hair. Use them on portrait or fashion shots only with great care. Digital sensors are usually able to do deep blue skies without help.

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Here’s the Elinchrom Ranger head as used. Frank asked delegates to restrict themselves to three shots per situation, a request generally ignored. I took some before the flash had recycled, to show the effect of the scene without flash, and with flash.

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This was my ‘take’ on this setup and it’s probably different from most as I used a 12-24mm Sigma HSM lens at 12mm. Now Frank did not explain to the photographers how he was using his electronic viewfinder, and I didn’t ask, but I’m sure he had it set to over-ride manual setting gain, as he was shooting on manual (M) with a degree of underexposure that would have made the finder extremely dark. I didn’t change my setting and though for all the other situations I was able to compose well enough, for this set-up my EVF showed nothing but solid black where the model was. As a result, I did not see what an ungainly shape was made by the extreme angle of the 12mm lens for a couple of poses.

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The left hand side is very much how my finder looked. I don’t like this result, but I could not tell until after it was taken. Nadine was changing poses rapidly. This is one case where the optical viewfinder of my Alpha 900 would have been a better choice.

If you have a Sony/Minolta wireless flash set-up, you can overcome this whole problem. Your remote flash would perhaps need a softbox, or more realistically a small umbrella to match Frank’s localised soft flash and also receive the control signal from the on-camera flash. You would simply set the remote flash to Manual power not TTL, set the A99 (or other EVF DSLR) to Aperture Priority (A), set f/20, and rely on the flash’s auto communication with the camera body to set 1/160th flash sync and ignore the ambient light. You can also do the same with a slave cell triggered by a small camera top unit converted to invisible IR using a gel filter or old transparency unexposed film-end. You can not do this with the sync cable (PC socket) or flash triggers, as these connections do not tell the camera there is a charged flash fitted, and set the shutter speed.

Elinchrom! We need, for Sony and other EVF or LCD screen-only cameras, a flash trigger designed to provide a signal to the pin which the camera’s own flash system uses to auto-set flash sync speed when using Aperture priority. When this is live, the viewfinder brightness is set to auto gain regardless of the exposure mode (PASM) used.

For his first set-up, Frank was actually shooting full lengths from a distance with Nadine making a small element in a large view. I liked the structure she was posing under, and prefer in general to get pictures which are not a copy of the course leader’s work. Although this was also slightly underexposed for the background, I had no problem with the EVF when the subject was in a normally lit area.

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You may say, the subject was in sunlight anyway, so why use flash? The dual lighting gives a filmic look, like a movie set lit in Californian sunshine (and Scotland’s legendary blue skies complete the illusion). This essentially sidelight from the sun, with a frontal fill you can see most clearly on the fingers of the left hand glove.

For a further set-up, Frank moved to the roof terrace view over the north of Edinburgh towards Leith and the Forth (first image on this page). He had demonstrated sets suitable for normal to wide angle lenses, using the 24-70mm, and switched to the 70-200mm f/2.8 Sony SSM G for a different relationship between the model and the background.

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This was the view without flash – not a bad set-up as it stands. When processing my images, I found that the in-camera standard JPEGs of the A99 handled the red of the dress better than almost any setting or camera profile using Adobe Camera Raw. Colours like this are a good case for trying alternative raw converters, such as DxO Optics Pro or Capture One Pro. Their camera profiles are generally closer to the in-camera conversions than Adobe’s. Frank demonstrated how to use the MacBeth ColorChecker Passport colour patch target and its camera profiling software to create an on-the-spot profile for better ACR/LR conversions.

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This is the shot with flash, again, in-camera JPEG sRGB. AdobeRGB would retain more potential detail in the red, raw conversion to 16-bit using ProPhotoRGB the maximum. But for that you also need something like a Eizo 10-bit monitor with a matching video driver, and no Apple Mac made comes with that. Build yourself a tower system and it’s just about possible to get 10-bit colour… but not using Mac OSX! My monitor is a regular old 27 inch iMac and if it’s 8-bit it’s having a good day. The colour looks lovely, but accurate it certainly is not. I don’t mind as 99% of all the screens any of my images will ever be seen on are no better, and the printed page is far inferior. Putting the above pictures into print would almost guarantee the differences you see here are lost.

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Because the Glasshouse’s rooftop function suite has a white translucent fabric roof, the overhead projector could not be used. So, Frank sat down with his laptop and the photographers. Later on in the day, the group moved to an inside room, and he demonstrated a series of processing steps in Lightroom with special attention to the use of plugins producing Clarity, pseudo-HDR and ‘image look’ and to fashion and beauty retouching.

To read more about Frank’s work, visit his own website www.frankdoorhof.com or follow him via Kelby Training. He regularly does workshop tours. I’ll be reporting on some of his views and hints for professional photographers, specifically, in the June 2013 edition of Master Photography magazine (you can subscribe here for this 10X a year magazine which we also produce).

For more information on the Elinchrom flash system, Skyport wireless triggering and battery powered Ranger/Ranger Quadra location flash, see The Flash Centre website.

- David Kilpatrick

New apps for NEX 5R and 6

Light Shaft and Motion Shot are two new apps for the NEX-5R and NEX-6 – one of which looks almost unacceptable (sure way to get your images disqualified from competitions, however much fun) and the other really innovative, bringing a motion clip function to the NEX range which it was lacking before.

There is also a new version of PlayMemories Online mobile app with Photo Book feature now available

Available to buy from www.sony.net/pmca, both apps let you instantly create a huge range of in-camera picture effects, with no special PC software or image editing skills needed.

Light Shaft adds a ‘dramatic ray of light, like sunshine bursting through cloudy skies’. Position your light source and choose from Ray, Star, Flare or Beam effects then tweak the angle, intensity, length and number of rays. The original photo is automatically saved as a copy alongside the amended version. Now you can say you have been shafted by Sony :-)

Motion Shot ‘identifies your moving subject in a high-speed burst of frames, capturing each moment of the subject’s motion into a single image. Press the shutter button and track the split-second action of that wild snowboarding trick or pole-vault. Freeze the beauty of wild birds landing on a lake or just have fun capturing friends, family and pets on the move. Fine-tune each shot by choosing your sequence length, start/end frames and fade-in or out.’ Alongside the composite image (?), your original frames will be recorded in continuous shooting mode and remain untouched.

New PlayMemories Camera Apps™ for the NEX-5R and NEX-6 are available now in the UK.

PlayMemories Online: New Android app and Photo Book feature

A new Android app* adds fresh features to PlayMemories Online, the photo and video cloud service from Sony. There’s also a new Photo Book feature that lets you have fun creating beautiful online photo books in a few simple steps.

The new app automatically selects memorable shots from all your uploaded photos, organising them by date. Each day you launch the app on your mobile device, you’ll see different photos from the past to rekindle those priceless memories.

Photo Book lets you organise and enjoy all the photos you’ve uploaded to PlayMemories. Just pick the photos that you want to be included into your photo book, select from a choice of eight themes and personalise your photo book with text and decorations. Once your book is ready you can view it at any time on your smartphone, tablet or PC; better still, share all those memories with friends and family by Facebook or e-mail.

Friedman’s Alpha 99 e-book released

Well, we knew it would take some time – Gary Friedman has been working on his Alpha 99 e-book since the camera was pre-released to the press, and six months later, he’s got a huge volume as a result.

“This is my largest and most comprehensive work to date – 625 pages!”, Gary says.

It is available in triple-digital form: Buy a DRM-free, digital copy for USD $29.95 and you can download it ANY of the following formats:

* .pdf, (great for your computer or iPad)
* .mobi (ideal for your Kindle)
* .epub (ideal for your Nook and other e-readers).

(Printed books will be available from April 2013.)

Here’s the link.

Gary Friedman’s new Alpha 99 e-book

http://friedmanarchives.com/alpha99

Gary has just returned from Malaysia and Singapore, where he was running workshops including one for Sony themselves. He’s also just finished signing off the proofs for the latest Cameracraft quarterly magazine, published by Photoclubalpha’s owners Icon Publications Ltd, edited by David Kilpatrick with Gary as US Associate Editor.

Issue No 3, 2nd Quarter 2013, will be available from the first week of April and includes a great story on Gary’s period working in China, a portfolio proving that pinhole photography does not have be soft and murky, a look at viewpoints and the camera, the best ‘historical battle recreation’ set we’ve ever seen, and more.

http://www.iconpublications.com/cameracraft/