Sony Alpha DSLR-A900For studio photographers on a budget, this full-frame, 24.5-megapixel monster from Sony is a great option. Noisy low-light images may turn off others, though.
Feb 2, 2009
By Dan Havlik
Look inside the bright viewfinder of the A900 and you'll understand the reason for the camera's large pentaprism—it gives you a clear and complete 100 percent view of what you'll be capturing with the camera's 35.9 x 24mm CMOS sensor. Composing pictures with the A900 is a delight and studio photographers—who are the obvious target audience for this camera—will see the immediate benefit. What you see is literally what you're going to get with this camera.
Images from the Sony A900 also have a "throwback" quality to them and mostly that's a good thing. No other camera aside, perhaps, from the 21.1 Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III has produced such rich, luscious, and true-to-life tones in good lighting as the A900. In particular, the dynamic range is superb, finally approaching what you might find in film, which is the one area where digital photography still lags.
But there are other "throwback" qualities to the A900 that are not as pleasing which is why this excellent but somewhat limited camera may only appeal to a limited number of photographers. For one, when you crank the A900 to above ISO 800 expect to see noise—a lot of noise—just as with older DSLRs in years gone by.
Also, expect a limited number of features on the A900 including no Live View and no movie mode of any kind. (Strange for a company like Sony, which is a world leader in video, no?) While there are some who might argue that these extras have no place in the studio, this is still a DSLR and you will conceivably leave the studio with it from time to time to take photos in uncontrolled shooting conditions. You also might want to shoot some video with it.
These limitations are unfortunate, especially considering the very reasonable, $3,000 price tag for this high-resolution studio camera, which is about $5,000 less than the MSRP on the 24.5-megapixel Nikon D3X, and about $3,600 under the current price of the 1Ds Mark III.
When stacked against medium-format digital cameras which cost $15,000+, the A900 looks like even more of a bargain. So if you don't mind that the A900 doesn't do lot more than take great pictures in the right lighting—that's not so bad, right?—this classic-seeming new camera could be for you. If you want something more flexible however, you might want to look elsewhere.
Though the A900 is a big and boxy looking DSLR, it's not especially a heavy one even with the VG-C90AM vertical grip ($279) attached, which is how we tested it. The camera body (33 ounces) is actually lighter than the D700 (39 ounces) and just a bit heavier than the 5D Mark II (28.5 ounces).
Though it fits comfortably in your hand, there's a less substantial feel to the Sony A900 than either the Canon 5D II or the Nikon D700. My co-tester Jason Groupp remarked that while the A900 "looks good" it was "a little on the plasticy side." I didn't quite feel the same way but I knew what he meant. There's less rubberizing around the A900's body than either the Canon or the Nikon and it has a sort of vaguely hollowed out feel when you pick it up. Still, it certainly doesn't seem cheap and is a pretty solid offering for a camera with so much resolution at such a reasonable price.
The other big difference between the A900 and the 5D Mark II (reviewed here) is that the number of buttons and switches on the Sony model outnumber the Canon which is more a matter of taste than a criticism. The A900's magnesium alloy body has moisture-resistant rubber seals around those buttons and dials and the camera's shutter is rated at more than 100,000 release cycles.
One distinct extra is the switch for Sony's SteadyShot image stabilization which is built into the camera body rather than into the lenses as is the case with Canon and Nikon. The 3-inch LCD on back of the A900 features a notch more resolution (921,600-dot) resolution than the Canon 5D Mark II and those extra pixels show. Sony's great at improving screens on DSLRs and the LCD on the A900 is one of the best we've seen. All of which makes it more frustrating that there's no Live View or Movie Mode on this camera which would really showcase the big, high-res screen.
Instead of Live View, the A900 offers something called "intelligent preview" which lets the camera "grab" and show a RAW preview image on the LCD screen when you hit the depth of field preview button. Ostensibly, you can then tweak your white balance and adjust exposure and check settings before you capture your shot. Preview images are not recorded on the camera's memory card, just stored in the buffer, so they won't fill your memory card.
To be quite frank, I rarely used this only nominally useful feature during testing and found it to be simply a way for Sony to fudge the fact that there's no Live View on the A900.
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