My introduction to the first ever Sony D-SLR, the Alpha 100 took place after a 2 hours drive into the Morrocan desert, North Africa. Fireworks, music, and a mock attack by horse and camel mounted Berbers and the new Alpha had arrived, even if we had to wait until the following day to actually play with it.
Sony has got to this point so quickly by buying Konica Minolta’s (KM) D-SLR technology, KM’s crown jewels if you will. The KM Dynax/Maxxum heritage is obvious in the new Alpha too, from the same lens mount, through to the camera’s control layout, the 2.5-inch, 230k-pixel colour screen that doubles as the Navigation Display (so no top plate data LCD) on to the sound the shutter makes, you can feel and hear the KM heritage within.
Key features "At a Glance" include a 10-megapixel APS-C size CCD sensor, Super Steady Shot (body integral anti shake system), Anti-dust system, BIONZ image engine, Dynamic Range Optimiser (Standard and Advanced modes), Stamina Lithium ion battery pack, 2.5-inch, 230k-pixels colour screen/Navigation Display, 3fps continuous shooting (to limit of card in JPEG shooting), Sony RAW+JPEG simultaneous capture, CompactFlash Type I/II and Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo storage, 21 interchangeable Sony lenses by end of the year, Complete camera System – ready.
The Alpha 100 is a compact, lightweight D-SLR that sits nicely in the hand, is choc full of neat kit, but seems, well, and bit plasticy. Nevertheless, Sony has introduced a raft of new technologies for the Alpha 100 and it has adopted and adapted other KM innovations such as the CCD Anti Shake system – here called Super Steady Shot – a body integral carriage-mounted sensor that shifts to compensate for user movement thus reducing camera shake for any lens fitted to the body. Sony has "improved" it over the KM version to now give the equivalent of 3.5EV compensation and with improved low frequency sensitivity to detect more subtle movement and adjust for it more quickly; it seems very capable.
Eye-start is included and has been revamped for the Alpha 100. Sensors below the bright, clear viewfinder activate the focusing and metering and deactivate the Navigation Display so that by the time you’re actually looking through the viewfinder the camera has focused and metered and is ready to take a shot.
Of the new Sony bits brought to the Alpha package most significant is probably the 10-megapixel APS-C sized sensor; lens focal lengths have the usual for this sized chip, 1.5x magnification factor. The sensor features an anti-static/anti-dust coating and a vibration system (similar to Olympus’ E-system models) that gives the sensor a shake down each time the camera is turned off (or is invoked in menus) to get rid of any dust that has rudely parked itself on the sensor.
A new BIONZ image processor "engine" has a special Dynamic Range Optimiser that processes high contrast images to smooth harsh exposure differences between dark and light areas. In standard mode, it processes the entire image, but because this has a possible drawback of removing highlight details, Sony has provided an advanced setting, that analyses the image and only increases the gain in the shadow areas.
Sony warned that this mode can have up to a 2 second delay while the processor eats through the large 10-megapixel files, but on using it myself, I noticed no delays at all. The advanced mode has the advantage of leaving the highlights alone but the disadvantage can be increased noise in shadow areas.
It’s not just about the body though, there are 16-million Minolta/Konica Minolta optics already out there that will fit onto the Alpha, but by the end of this year Sony will have a further 21 new lenses in place to add to the Alpha system.
A range of G-series lenses and premium optics from Carl Zeiss include a 35mm F1.4 G prime lens, a fast Planar T* 85mm F1.4 ZA (Zeiss/Alpha) prime portrait lens and a range of mid and long focal length zooms. While not all are available from the off, the camera will be sold in three kits, or rather a body only pack and a single lens pack and a twin lens kit.
The body-only pack includes a Sony Lithium ion battery (up to a claimed 750-shots per charge) and a CompactFlash adapter for Sony’s Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo, meaning the camera uses CF Type I/II and Memory Stick via the adapter. It will cost £599 and is on sale from July.
The single lens kit comes with the above (among other (usual) bits and bobs such as USB cable, software etc.) and a DT 18-70mm F3.5-5.6 zoom lens. It will cost £699 and is available from July as well. Finally, the twin lens outfit has the above and a 75-300mm F4.5-5.6 zoom in the box and will retail for £849.
Other kit of note includes a full range of accessories including two flashguns with advanced, off-camera IR trigger functionality, a ring light, an angle finder, bags and straps and remote controllers.
While I was able to use full production samples for some time during the launch event (pictures taken on various Alpha 100’s accompany this piece) we’ll have to await the arrival of review samples to get a full analysis of the new camera, suffice to say I’ve seen enough to know it’s a good bit of kit and crucially, it is competitively priced.
In short, from Sony appropriating the KM D-SLR technology to the launch of the Alpha 100 and a complete camera system, it has taken 6 months. Obviously, a lot was happening behind the scenes prior to KM pulling out of the photo market, but this speed is something of an indicator, a statement of intent, of just how serious Sony is in making inroads into the current market dominance of Canon and Nikon. Only time will tell how successful it will be.
Sony has already confirmed that it intends to introduce new models and lenses within the next year or two, it has also intriguingly said that the new lenses being made are able to cover a "full frame", hinting at a pro-end model with a full frame (in 35mm terms) D-SLR in the near future.
When the camera becomes available to test in the next few weeks, we’ll be able to see just how well it can perform and in coming months, to see if Sony has the might to take on Canon and Nikon. It has to be said, it would seem they’ve made a very aggressive start.