Equipment & Software Reviews

Sony A900, A DSLR for Photographers

Serious photographers and especially those that make their income from photography are not particularly interested in special effects, automation tools etc, no sir. What we want is a camera that is intuitive to use, has a good control layout with dedicated controls for all core functions so one doesn’t have to go into the menu system to do something basic like change the ISO.

Many of today’s DSLRs have become ridiculously complex, they have more functions and adjustments than you can poke the proverbial stick at, but in the end it all just seems like complexity for complexity sake.

When I was looking to update my camera system around this time last year I had a few ideas in mind as to what I wanted from the camera.

First up I wanted something that had a really good viewfinder, I was completely sick of dim tunnels that passed as the viewfinder on my past digital cameras. It is vitally important to me to be able to see when the image popped into focus.

Next I wanted a bright and sharp LCD, something big that worked OK in daylight.

There were a few things I didn’t want or need such as lots of adjustments for the jpeg file parameters, I virtually never shoot jpegs. Additionally I didn’t want something that was too bulky and heavy.

As for image quality I wanted something that produced files that looked like great film images.

Weighing up all the options on the market I kept coming back to the Sony A900, it just seemed to strike the right balance, it was not without fault of course but in the end I was sure I could live with the compromises.

So here we are 12 months and a fair amount of pro work later, how do I feel about my A900 you might ask?

Actually I love it, but there are a few things that are not so great so I will cover those first.

The main issue is noise levels at higher ISO with JPEGs and also the rather soft rendering of details in the JPEGs. Now it must be emphasised that this is really only an issue when you look at screen view of the images because prints are great, even from jpegs, but there is no doubt that Sony could have done better and the Sony 550 produces great jpegs straight out of the camera so Sony are certainly capable of doing this.

The second gripe is the RAW converter program that Sony provides, it is easily the worst RAW converter I have had the misfortune of using, it is an embarrassment to be frank and it does the camera a great injustice, as the RAW files when processed in a good quality program are extraordinary.

What else, well that little screen on the top of the camera is a complete waste, it tells you nothing much and would have been better replaced with a button to control some other aspect of the camera. If Sony want to put an LCD there then they should make it a good one like that found on any Canon model.

The remote control is a nice bonus but why Sony chose to not make it work with the 2 sec self timer or mirror lock up is a total mystery, as the times that I want to use the remote are the same times I require those features.

Sometimes the review seems a little slow, but I suspect this a card related issue so I won’t whinge too much.

The mirror makes a pretty resounding thump when it goes up and down, but this does not seem to affect photo clarity in any way, but the A900 is not going to win any awards for worlds quietest camera.

So what is good about the camera …………..heaps?

First it has a brilliant viewfinder, it is just an absolute pleasure to use it, I can see precisely where the focus point falls even in lowish light, in fact it is easily the best viewfinder I have ever used.

The controls once you are accustomed to the camera are very logical, I just find it quick to use on jobs, I never have those terrible pauses where your thinking, “now where is that #2%!! control”. Likewise the menu system is very neat, it has nowhere near the custom options that say an equivalent Canon or Nikon does but I find that as a raw shooter most of those options are just wasted on me, I would much rather a clean straight forward layout and operation.

One particularly neat feature of the Sony is the in-body stabilization, this means that any compatible lens is stabilized and that, friends, opens up a whole world of reasonably priced alternatives. The stabilization also works very well and one nice bonus is that even on a tripod it doesn’t stuff your sharpness up if you forget to turn it off, unlike most other cameras.

I love the size of the camera, it is just right in the hand and about the right weight for my needs, cameras like the pro Nikons and Canons are ridiculously heavy and are really no better built for all that extra weight. Incidentally I should mention that the construction quality of the A900 is superb, if you have only ever handled one of Sony’s consumer grade SLR’s you are in for a surprise in this area. A side benefit of the great construction is the camera has held up well to constant handling, cosmetically it still looks brand new.

The best bit however is the image quality, if properly exposed at regular ISO’s it is utterly gorgeous, the tonal range is superb, the colour totally natural and in my opinion it does the trick of having all the best things that film images had to offer without the deficits. Trust me on this, you can’t judge the look of these files on a computer screen, you have to print them and in print they are utterly glorious.

The resolution is quite incredible, but to obtain it you have to change your way of working, basically you need to slow down and take a little more time, making sure your really do pick the best aperture for the required DOF and placing the focus at the precise point of required maximum sharpness. Using a tripod is also advised, as any movement at all will negate the hi-res benefits. Of course the A900 also stretches the envelope of lens resolution, so bad lenses need not apply for a position in your camera bag.

This is a serious tool for serious image makers, used properly it will reward with image quality that is probably better than you will need for almost any purpose but if you shoot it like a “point and shoot” then you would likely get better results from its little brother the A550 which is a fairly lightweight affair but is rather good in terms of picture quality and user friendliness.

Overall I think of the A900 as an analogue camera for serious image makers that just happen to shoot digital instead of film, it is one of only four cameras I have owned that I have got attached to, the other three were a Rollieflex TLR, a Nikon F2 and a Canon EOS 1n (film). In fact I think I am more attached to A900 than I was to any of the others, though I still love that EOS 1n.

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