Sunday, August 30, 2009

Editorial: Sony Introduces New Alphas: A500/550/850

This aren't exactly fresh news, but they are still news: Sony has recently introduced 3 new Alpha DSLRs to its range: The Alpha A500/550 and A850.

The A500/550 carry APS-C sized sensors of 12.3 and 14.2 megapixels respectively. The A850 carries a CMOS of 24.6 megapixels (the same as the A900).

If you want to read the full press release and specs click here for the A500/550 and here for the A850.

So what's new and what isn't? (If you want to just read about the A850, head to the section titled "What about the A850?", the title is in green)

The A500/500 are an upgrade of the A230/A330/380, or the A200/300/350 for that matter for those of you who can't buy a A700 or don't want to yet.

Don't be tricked by the A550, it doesn't carry the same sensor as the A350/380. Even though they share the same resolution, the A550 carries a CMOS sensor instead of the CCD one found in the A350.

I'm assuming the A500 carries the same sensor as the A700, maybe tweaked enough or maybe its a new design alright. I don't know, Sony doesn't let me know this stuff.

The headlines of these models are:

ISO Range: Rated between 200 and 12,800, the models promise to deliver better noise reduction and better noise patterns that will keep detail even at ISO 12,800.

Personally, I could use ISO 12,800. But I wouldn't trade my A700 for one of these just yet, more on that later.

LCD screens of 3" with 230,000 pixels (A500) and 921,000 pixels (A550): Both cameras have a good and great resolutions on their screens. Not to mention they are tiltable up to 90 degrees up or down.

It's nice of Sony to include high res screens on these models, since it has been proven how useful they are to check your pictures. As for the tiltable screens, I haven't played too much with them but they seem a good idea.

Both models accept SD/SDHC and Memory Stick Duo memory cards: Ok, this is cool, but whatever happened to CF cards? I don't like too much SD cards...

Both models use the NP-FM500H battery: Woohoo! These means that all of you who have batteries of this kind don't have to worry about the current model being phased out. Personally I like this move from Sony, to keep using the same battery across the line (except for the A100/230/330/380) instead of introducing new batteries like other companies do, new batteries every time a new model is released.

The batteries are expected to let you shoot 480 times using LiveView and 950 using the viewfinder. Not too bad me thinks...

HDMI: If you got or are planning to buy a HDTV, you can blast your pictures in full HD in your TV with the proper cable (which I'm assuming it will cost a pretty penny).

Unfortunately this means that you cant show your pictures on regular TV sets that require the usual colored jacks. Maybe Sony is pushing people to move to HDTVs now that the US no longer transmit analog signals for TVs and everything is now digital.

Personally I would have preferred the A700/900 way: HDMI and digital jack exit. Not everything has an HDTV yet Sony...

4fps with LiveView/5fps with Optic Viewfinder/7fps with Speed Priority mode (A550 Only): These are good enough speeds for most work, and they maintain the average that's been delivered by Sony in upper models: 5fps. The 7fps the A550 delivers seems to work by delaying the mirror into coming down. If you shoot sports, 5 and 7 should work for you. Unless you need to be rattling away like a machine gun and need 9 fps or higher, look elsewhere.

Free advice: for those speeds you should get a quick card (300x). I'm assuming you will have to stick to the program as well: No DRO or DR+, NR low, etc.

And please don't complain about the fact that only the first shot has focus confirmation and the rest doesn't. EVERY SINGLE MANUFACTURER DOES THIS. They just don't talk about it so you wont complain.

Still, I think its good Sony mentions it, that way you know what to expect instead of thinking its a malfunction.

Price: Here's the part most of you will like. These cameras will be available on October with a price of $750 (A500) and $950 (A550) body only or $850 (A500) and $ 1050 (A500) with the DT18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Worth mentioning that this kit lens has been receiving nice reviews.

New vertical grip: With the introduction of these cameras, a new vertical grip is introduced; the VG-B50AM, which fits both models. The usual benefits are guaranteed of course: holds two batteries, switches over to the next one when one runs out of power, plenty of buttons to press without having to go horizontal.

Do you need this camera? and Why I wouldn't trade my A700 for one of these:

Every time a new DSLR is announced, a lot of people think they need it just because. They think their current camera will melt or the sensor on it will crack and will be rendered useless. NOT THE CASE.

Do you need this camera? Well, only you can answer that.

Do you need a higher ISO range to work?

Do you need better resolution?

Do you need Live View?

Do you need the new Manual Focus Check Live View (the one off the main sensor)?

Do you need more fps?

If the answer is yes, then do consider these models. If you have invested money on the Alpha system, chances are you already got what you need to carry on with the new body.

If the answer is no, then don't buy just because its new. You can still work and make great pictures with your camera, Id invest in lenses or hardware (flashes, remotes, memory cards, etc.).

Personally, I wouldn't trade my A700 for one of these for a lot of reasons, some of them are:

Resolution: I manage well with 12 megapixels right now, going for 14 wont do much since 2 megapixels aren't that much difference just as 8 to 10 or 10 to 12 aren't that much difference either.

Body construction: The body in my A700 is far better than the new ones, more solid and resistant, seals on the buttons, AF lamp, IR remote terminal, grip sensors and it doesn't have the Nikonized shutter button that now carries the On/Off switch.

Note to Sony: This new shutter button isn't exactly a great idea, the shutter button should be a smooth place where there's nothing else but the shutter button, its shouldn't be the bulky thing you've made it by including the power switch on it. The power slider button you had/have on the rest of the Alphas is perfect. Please drop this for future models :)

I admit that when I first got my A700 I publicly said I wanted the silver shutter button found on my H1, but the simple black button has grown on me. I still would like to have a silver shutter button, but unfortunately I don't like the fact that it also carries the power switch. I tried a A330 the other day and the switch is just uncomfortable for me with the ring and the switch there. If its between this new shutter button and the simple black one, I take the black one.

Finally, the A700 is the right size for my hands, the new body design doesn't seem to be the right size (I just couldn't hold the A330) and even though the new A5XXs seem to be bigger than the smaller siblings, I don't think they will be like the A700 but more like the A200.

Quick Navi: I don't see it anywhere in the new models, but I wouldn't trade the Quick Navi on my A700 since it allows me to do changes at the speed of light. Ive been spoiled by it unfortunately, if I need to browse through menus or press a lot of buttons, I lose my patience. The new Alphas seem to just display the information but you got to go into menus or press the dedicated buttons to make changes. Not practical for fast changes. And the new screen that displays shutter speed and aperture relations to the EV scale doesn't seem to make much sense either in the sense that the values displayed on one scale dont match the others (in accordance to the principle of reciprocity) Check the A550's brief hands-on at DPReview to see what Im talking about .

I hope Sony fixes this before release to market. The screen should be made interactive among them, display the info but also allow to make changes on it on the fly.

Shutter speed range: The A700 has a better shutter speed range, the new models go up to 1/4000 which is the top speed for all the models below the A700, and that's ok, but I have used the speeds beyond 1/5000 frequently and I don't want to trade that. If you capture fast moving subjects or plan to capture them, a top speed of 1/8000 against 1/4000 does make a difference.

Overall connections: The A700 has more connections like the PC flash sync port or the IR wireless remote commander, regardless of what other people say I use that remote extensively, and the digital video jack. Maybe you don't need these, so the new Alphas should be ok for you, but I do show my pictures on TVs all the time, and most of them require the video jack. Personally I don't know why Sony removed it from the Alphas below the A700...

DOF and MF/AF buttons: For some reason, Sony doesn't include this in your camera unless you buy a A700/850/900, why I don't know, but it is a very useful button. The ability to know exactly how much of the scene will be in focus relative to the selected aperture is something I wouldn't let go, since I use that button all the time. Sony has compensated this in the new models by adding a display on the LCD screen that shows you how much of the scene will be in focus depending on the aperture selected, but its not the same thing to see an estimation on the screen than to see it yourself on the viewfinder.

Maybe with the Manual Focus Check Live View you will be able to check DOF too, but as far as Ive read, its just for focus accuracy.

The new models don't have a MF/AF button, this is a critical function to me. Being able to switch from manual to automatic focus and viceversa is so important to me. The new models still require you to look for the switch next to the lens mount which I find very impractical honestly if you need to switch like NOW.

Note to Sony: Please stop that trend of Nikonizing things, including lenses. I don't like that the new lenses require me to look for a switch on the lens to change between MF or AF when I already got a button AND a lever to do just that! There's no need for an extra switch on the lens as well, it just slows things down. They may be designed for APS-C lenses and all but that doesn't mean that the process should have extra steps.

Mirror lock up function: A lot of people say this isn't necessary and whatnot, but I do use it when using slow shutter speeds to avoid blurring because of the mirror slap, which is the function it is for. You can get away without it but its better to have it, or so I think.

Those are some reasons why I WOULD NOT switch my A700 for the A500/550, however, those cameras do have some stuff I could use, such as: ISO 12,800, I don't care what others say, I could give it good use even if its as noisy as a kinder garden.

I don't need LiveView that much but I could use it nonetheless, although I'm more interested in the Manual Focus Check function, that does sound interesting. The tiltable screen would be welcome as well for those odd angles where you cant watch the viewfinder in real time...

Now that Ive said all this, I must say the following:

The new A500/550 are NOT meant to replace the A700, they fill a gap between the A230/330/380 and the A700 or the A900 for that matter. I don't want to come across like I'm bashing the new Alphas as useless, they are not, but to me they'd be a step down overall instead of an upgrade because of the camera I use. It'd be the same as going from an A900 to a A230.

If you have been using an A200/300/350 and you want an upgrade, these cameras are for you. They offer a slight step up in resolution but increased functions overall. One particular that comes to mind is that you can now use DRO function in full extent; you can now use the Advanced levels that only the A700 and A900 had until now. And trust me, they ARE useful. Once you try it, you wont want to shoot without anymore.

Besides, at those prices, they are a good deal really. If I planned on staying in APS-C, Id pick a A550 as a second body. Maybe I will though, a A550 could be a good partner for my A700 while I go full frame. The good thing is that its sold as body only, so I could pick one of those and move on since I already got lenses and hardware.

But now that I think of it, having a DT18-55mm wouldn't hurt...:)

Hey, don't go yet! We still have the A850 to talk about!

What about the A850?

Well, Ill keep it simple.

The A850 is a slight downgrade of the A900 in specs but an upgrade in price.

The only differences between them are:

VF coverage: The A900 has a 100% coverage viewfinder, the A850 has a 98% coverage viewfinder. It seems that creating a viewfinder that covers 100% is an expensive process, so Sony masked it a little to save on cost.

Frame per second speed: The A900 delivers a stunning speed of 5 fps (its stunning because we're talking about a FF camera with 24 megapixels, which is faster than the Canon 5D Mark II and same as the Nikon D3X) but the A850 has been slowed down a bit to 3 fps, which is still fast for a camera with such a huge mirror and sensor.

IR remote commander: The A900 contains this in the box, but the A850 doesnt, its an optional accessory. No biggie though, you can still purchase it on its own for $30.

Price: The most important aspect of this release. Sony has set the price for the A850 at $2000 (1,999.99 if youre picky) against the original $3000 Sony asked for the A900 during release. Even though the A900's price has decreased to $2700, the difference is still substantial, enough to let you purchase some Sony or third party lenses or one G or Carl Zeiss lens.

Thats it! The double BIONZ processors, the ISO range, the 24.6 megapixel resolution, the Quick Navi, etc. has been kept. Its the same body, electronics, sensor, etc. It even takes the same vertical grip the A900 does.

No luck on the built in flash though...

I think its commendable that Sony is trying to bring FF cameras to a wider audience. These cameras on their own are more expensive than APS-C DSLRs. The A900 set a record for affordability and they do it again on the A850.

And lest I forget, Sony also introduced a new lens to be sold as a kit with the A850: The 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM lens. Press release here . The lens is priced at $800. This lens is an affordable option to the Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 SSM that costs $1600. Some say that its the same version that Minolta and Tamron have around, but this is not confirmed yet, we'll wait for testing.

Taking in account both body and lens, youre looking at $2800 for both body and a lens, which in my opinion is a VERY sweet deal to start on FF.

Personally Im very tempted to give myself the go for this camera, but unfortunately I need a better computer first to deal with the files that camera generates. This one wont be able to cope.

If you were waiting for a good price on a FF camera, if you dont need such banalities as video or Live View and the reduced specs dont bother you, then this is what you were waiting for. There is also the possibility that the price will come down even more as time passes...

One final thing, video capabilities, although nice to have, in a DSLR are ultimately irrelevant to take good pictures. You dont need video on a DSLR to make a picture that will strike people. Sony didnt offer video on the A850 but that doesnt take any points off the camera.

Take in account the following: If you want video and the top resolution available on a DSLR, youd have to go Canon with their 5D Mark II, which is an impressive camera, but its still $700 more expensive than the A850 and it carries 21 megapixels, and while it may not be a huge difference from 21 to 24, the Sony sensor resolves detail much better than the Canon one.

In the Nikon system, the only option for top resolution (24.5 megapixels) but with no video, would be the D3X, but the price tag right now is $8,000. You do the math...

Sony is doing a nice thing for consumers, bringing good products at affordable prices. Personally, Im not one bit irritated that the new Alphas dont carry any video. Anyway, the video on DSLRs right now is limited at best and doesnt replace a good and proper video camera.

The only question right now that remains unanswered is: What will happen with the A700? Will it be replaced? Will it be kept for a while more and the A500/550 will take its place?

Regardless of what will happen in the future, things look good for Alpha DSLR users :)

Now, the only thing Sony needs to do before any new more DSLRs are released is to release firmware V5 for the A700 and V2 for the A900 ;).

Until next time!

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