(Pocket-lint) - The Sony Alpha 100 is a compact and relatively lightweight 10-megapixel D-SLR that is based around the Konica Minolta core technologies of a CCD-shift Anti Shake system and the Dynax lens mount. They have been adopted by Sony with the former now called Super Steady Shot.
The Dynax mount (called Maxxum in the US) means the Alpha will benefit from over 16-million lenses already out there and in use, plus a host of new optics ready for launch and the promise of 21 new lenses by the end of this year. Add to that a large collection of other accessories that have been moved across from the KM brand and tweaked for use on the new Alpha 100 and the offering is certainly substantial.
The Alpha 100 offers an almost retro approach to control with the shutter release and setting shift dial plus the drive mode button being accompanied by two large mode dials one either side of the pentaprism viewfinder housing; one, on the right, offers the "usual" array of scene modes including the Program, Auto, Aperture and Shutter priority and the full manual control option, while the other, on the left, provides fast access to some of the cameras more powerful options.
Turning the left dial and then pressing its central "Fn" (function) button fires up the camera’s LCD screen with the appropriate settings menus for you to select/change as needed. It's here you can access the flash, ISO and D-Range Optimiser functions. Flash settings (for the built-in pop-up flash module) include fill-in, auto, flash compensation; rear curtain sync and wireless flash options with the latter enabling the Alpha to remotely trigger multiple off-camera accessory flash units - an extremely powerful tool.
ISO settings can be adjusted here too and this ranges from Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800 to 1600 ISO. There are two boosted options of "Lo80" and "Hi200" ISO Zone Matching settings, allowing you to control under or over exposure problems respectively, both of which work really well.
Finally there is the D-Range Optimiser, allowing the camera’s BIONZ image processing engine to bring out image detail (or rather prevent its loss) in either highlights or shadows across the entire shot (the D-R Standard mode), or by specific areas within a scene the D-R+ (or advanced) mode, depending on the level you choose. And it works a treat, particularly the D-R+ mode.
There’s also a "DEC" mode that allows colour control across a range of presets (standard, vivid, etc.) or you can manually configure your settings using sliders for contrast, saturation and sharpness. White Balance control is here too with a range of "normal" presets. There’s a Kelvin control where you pick the colour temperature you require or you can use a custom setting which can be memorised and recalled later.
All this funky control necessitates a lot of use of the camera’s large and clear 2.5-inch colour screen, which can also rotate the displayed information automatically when you turn the camera upright; viewing your settings and controls is always a cinch. One demerit on the screen however is it lacks punch: colour seems washed out, and even though the images have plenty of detail in highlights when checked on-screen, the LCD makes this hard to judge accurately. Thankfully, the histogram display allows you to ensure the exposures are correct (or not!).
Other control options on the back plate include an auto exposure lock control and an "AV +/-" exposure compensation button. The on/off slider and viewfinder port also range across the top of the back plate with the latter housing dual eye-start sensors, which when on, activate the camera systems, metering and focus control so by the time the cameras at your eye, it’s ready to shoot.
The eye-start works very well and allowed me to grab a couple of successful shots quickly where they might have been missed. Overall, control is simple and fast with minimal menu use – unless you need it.
The camera’s sculpted handgrip and stippled finish make it nice to hold, feeling very secure in the hand. Below the grip is the bay for the rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, which managed 500-shots with plenty of flash and reviewing on the screen before the indicator started to drop and around 600 before a charge was needed.
Images are stored on a CompactFlash Type I/II card and, with a supplied CF adapter, Sony’s Memory Stick Duo/Pro Duo/MagicGate removable storage, making the Alpha 100 the first Sony digicam to accept non-Memory Stick cards. There’s a USB port under here as well but there’s no AV out.
So there’s a hat full of neat kit and great handling to boot, but what of image quality? You can shoot in JPEG (in Fine or Standard), Raw or simultaneous RAW and JPEG providing scope for most uses. The control RAW offers is nice but not everyone wants to play around on PC after the shooting has been completed.
Standard and Fine JPEG shooting provides plenty of detail with minimal artifacts in swathes of colour or shadow areas in Standard mode while Fine is completely clean. However, the camera’s noise reduction (when turned on) does tend to smooth over fine details. A pity since if you wanted to make prints over, say, A3+ (which the 10-megapixel sensor will allow), you’ll need to be aware that the detail can be compromised. It’s a flaw but not too serious.
Noise, potentially problematic when cramming so many pixels on such a small sensor, is actually well controlled (albeit with the caveat on the detail) and with a top 1600 ISO setting combined with the Super Steady Shot, you can really go to town with longer lenses and in low light.
Colour is well controlled (though blues seem under saturated) although colour control is customisable and has automatic presets such as vivid as we’ve seen. The auto white balance system struggles a little (it’s yellow-ish bias to particularly obvious in tungsten lighting) in some situations; the custom WB setting control is dead easy to use however, and makes a huge difference so it’s not a serious problem once you’ve got the hang of it.
Metering and focus are very accurate, with highlight detail well retained but shadows suffering slightly as a result; enter the D-Rang Optimiser... Focus speed is great, particularly as the Eye Start means it’s already working by the time the camera’s at the eye. The level of detail captured is okay for most uses and general (up to 7x5-inch) style prints, but the kit lens leaves a little to be desired; it certainly does not make the most of the sensor's high-resolution capability, but Sony’s upcoming Carl Ziess premium optics certainly will.
The Sony Alpha 100 provides a level of specification normally found on a camera costing over a £1000 more, but in a compact, fairly uninspiring (design wise that is) and lightweight body, but a body that does do the job very well indeed.
Image quality is excellent and can only be improved by better lenses as they roll out of the factory and perhaps a firmware update to help iron out that noise reduction and detail loss as well.
This is a stunning camera that will be perfect for enthusiasts on a tighter budget or anyone trading up (or across from film) and want the specification extras that this camera affords over its similarly priced competitors.