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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

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I was missing your comment on the A900, Mike, knowing your previous experience in Minolta.

But your reference to competition (" it's very likely that the splendid new A900 will soon have competition") is intruiguing to me: is that an obscure reference to cameras still embargoed, or it is just a case of wishful speculation?

I ask because, speculations aside, I have read nothing for real from any of the possible competitors (Pentax, Olympus) to enter this category, which as you rightly stated, is quite complicated for brands in the second tier.

Could you comment further on that, if possible?

Cateto/Jose,
The "Nikon D3X" (real name not known, high-MP counterpart to the D3) and Canon's replacement for the 5D (there are already teasers on its website and it might well be announced this Photokina) are both anticipated. It's widely assumed that both will be competitors of the A900.

Mike

imaging-resource.com have a review of it up with quite a few high ISO shots. Not very good at all given current competition.

http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/AA900/AA900PICS.HTM

Thanks for the quick reply, Mike: I misunderstood your comment above, as I thought you meant competition from some of the smaller brands, not from Canon or Nikon.

Honestly speaking, I think I am more excited now by the micro4/3 system and similar approaches than by FF stuff. I recently travelled with a Pentax K10D + 18/55 for a week to another country, and I think it is the upper limit of camera I would accept to carry on with me anytime. Something reaching similar quality but lighter would certainly be welcome.

The 800 pounds gorillas like A900 are fancy stuff to dream about, but who beyond the pros/semi pros will actually use those cameras in, say, 20% of their actual abilities?

Sony is becoming an interesting camera maker, although I still have trouble seeing it as a camera company. Since most of my recent "investments" in lenses have been in DX lenses, sooner or later I will need to get appropriate lenses when I buy a so-called full frame camera. (I am convinced that DX is but a temporary blip in the history of digital). When that occurs, I will feel free to switch to whichever brand has the best features and price for me. And Sony could be a candidate.

But that's a ways off and Sony will have to continue to innovate and prove itself reliable. Here in Japan, there is a widespread joke about a "Sony timer", meaning that Sony seems to put a timer in their products which causes them to fail the exact moment that the warranty expires. That's one thing Sony will have to dispel (for me, at least) before I would buy one.

I just love the mood lighting in the accompanying camera-porn shot. It's not like anyone would like to see what they camera actually looks like.

"It's not like anyone would like to see what they camera actually looks like."

Robin,
There are more pictures on the web than you can shake a stick at. Here, for one:

http://www.photographybay.com/2008/09/09/sony-a900-eye-candy/

Mike J.

Super sexy,

They should win an award for that portrait grip if nothing else. That camera is one mighty fine piece of industrial engineering.

People are already screaming bloody murder about high ISO. You know like it's just not clean enough at ISO 6400! (web shots of course)

Cripes man

charlie d,
As long as it's clean at 800 and usable at 1600 in a pinch it's good enough for me.

Mike J.

Mike, perhaps its time for you to look into your crystal ball and tell us all what the future of digital is. I just wish Dx lenses worked on Fx cameras, actually, I wish all lenses worked on all cameras, don't all monitors work on all computers. Apples and oranges, but I can dream can't I. A universal mount, now that would really be something. ch

"Sony is becoming an interesting camera maker, although I still have trouble seeing it as a camera company."

With respect, Sony has been making professional digital video cameras for years that are dependable and built like tanks. Their BVW-D600 Betacam SP is an old workhorse. They also build excellent high definition cameras. I once spent two months in Oceania with an HDW900. (over water most of the time) The beast took a hell of a beating and finally needed some TLC after salt water penetrated one of the chips in it's motherboard during rough weather somewhere off the coast of Tahiti. This after battling storms in the Strait of Magellan and enduring humid cannibal caves in Fiji and Easter Island.

Maybe I'm just a dunce, but I couldn't figure out Sony's strategy with this 24.5mp thing. I don't think you'll get a clean 800 and 1600 at a pinch; I think we're back in Kodak film days, with a semi-usable Tri-X 400 pushable to 800 in a pinch. I think you'll get something not as good as the Leica sensor in ISO response, without the Leica fast lenses as compensation.

Is it possible that Sony, a huge consumer company, went with max megapixels because their sales guys told them to? "Get us the most megapixels at the right price point, and we can move them?"

Then Mike J hints at the possibility that maybe they're going after landscape shooters -- and maybe they are. Put it on a tripod, shoot it at the base ISO, and there you are, good quality with more resolution than anything else out there. But that would be a lot more clever than anything I'd expect from Sony. Maybe the Minolta people are really still at the wheel? We'll see, I guess.

JC

"I don't think you'll get a clean 800 and 1600 at a pinch; I think we're back in Kodak film days, with a semi-usable Tri-X 400 pushable to 800 in a pinch."

What makes you think that?

Mike J.

Haven't seen one of those retro-look prism housings in a while.

Maybe it's chauvinism on my part, but I just don't think I could buy a serious camera with 'Sony' written on the prism.

"Maybe I'm just a dunce, but I couldn't figure out Sony's strategy with this 24.5mp thing."

Well, remember, megapixels are a measure of image size. The Pentax K20D I'm using these days can make 15"-wide prints at full resolution (300ppi). The Sony can do the same with prints 20 inches wide. The bigger a print you can make at full resolution, the easier it is to uprez to an even larger size. I've made 15"-wide K20D prints with better detail than I can comfortably see with my aging naked eye, from any viewing distance (I need my reading glasses). You only need about 3 megapixels to show a full resolution image on even the largest computer monitor. So it seems obvious that the target market for a camera like the A900 is people who either need or like to make large prints...the kind of people who either bought or would like to have bought anything in about the bottom half of the digital camera back market as far back as two or three years ago.

I speculated years ago--long before 12 MP was common--that 12 MP would be about as much as I would ever need for my own work. That was before I had Paul Butzi make some nice big prints for me, though. Capability begets application. I can't say as I think I need 24 MP, but for many years I never made prints more than about 15 inches in the long dimension, and now lately I have. So I guess I can't really be too doctrinaire about it, even when I'm just talking about my own stuff.

Don't be too pessimistic about the ISO performance, though. Online pixel-peeping just isn't a good measure...online samples haven't had careful NR applied, and the full-sized A900 samples you're seeing are bigger than anything you've ever seen from an SLR before, so naturally its flaws are going to be magnified, literally. That doesn't mean they'll be visible in full-res or smaller prints.

Mike J.

Dear John,

So, based on your purely physical analysis, nobody should give any attention to cameras like the Nikon D200 or 300, either. They'll obviously have inferior low light performance... using your method of analysis.

(Really, haven't folks learned yet that calculating pixel pitches won't tell them ANYTHING about image quality?)

pax / Ctein

Dear Mike,

Plus, wouldn't it be nice to be able to crop an image again, without fearing that it would fall apart into mush?

One thing "low" pixel counts have done is made people a bit too obsessive about working full frame. I mean, don't get me wrong. I tend to do very little cropping, myself. But that does't make it a necessity, let alone a major virtue. A lot of photographs (and photographers) come off much better when cropping's allowed and encouraged.

pax / Ctein

"I just love the mood lighting in the accompanying camera-porn shot." No - that's camera-artistic-nude ;)

Anyway, some people decide on one or two parameters for which they will accept no compromise. Full-frame and highest-megapixel-count-available are two easy choices. A high megapixel count sells high-res lenses. Poor high ISO performance sells fast lenses. Win-win.

I was at a Sony event yesterday in Toronto I got to play with the A900. On the outside it is very much like the A700 except full frame. Looking through the 100% view finder brought back memories of my Minolta film days and the images I saw were very sharp (I took some on my CF card). I would be tempted to buy however I will be somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic sailing to South Africa when it comes out. As for the issues with high magapixals and ISO that will always be a debate based on user preference.

According to what I've read, Sony's DX lenses will work on this camera. There are markings on the focusing screen that show the edge of the DX form factor. You will, in many cases, be looking at an image that's severely vignetted or even black outside of the DX area. Whether this is a problem is a personal decision.

As to competition, Canon's almost certainly bringing out a replacement for the 5D soon, and I expect that Nikon will eventually introduce a D700x that's aimed at this market. As the D700 is a D3 sensor in a "prosumer" body, the D700x would be the D3x sensor in a similar body. (I know absolutely nothing. This is speculation.)

I read the dpreview 'preview' on the A900 and they say the camera is designed around the viewfinder. This was really great news!

OTOH I also checked out the 'samples' and sorry to say the images at ISO 3200 looked really grainy, well acceptable really but not in the same league as even the D300/40D. This may be the fine-art/low-ISO camera, period.

Even the ISO 200 and 400 samples i've seen do not seem to match the current/old competition.

I'm also in the "chauvinist" camp. I had high hopes for the A900 when it was announced. 24MP and Zeiss glass.... But, i bought a Minolta Maxxum 7 couple of months ago, wanting a small, AF SLR, and with the new Sony 50/1.4 lens, i just didn't like the feel (or look) of the products. Nothing in the Sony Alpha line to date has changed my opinion. I hated the idea of walking around with that Maxxum, and i can't imagine feeling confident with the Sony logo either. If Sony will eventually build a 1D/D3 class body (construction and design), maybe eventually i'll change my tune. But, i really don't even like the construction of the few Zeiss lenses i've seen/touched. They don't seem to be built for pros (yet).

The 4/3 system? I don't really get it. Another platform that doesn't allow DOF control? It has, what, a 2x crop factor? So, a 50mm/normal lens will be a 25mm? And, with a max aperture of 2.8? If i wanted to shoot portraits, they would be with the bokeh of a 25mm 2.8 lens? This seems like a very marginal improvement on the usual P&S digital. And, a step down from what the DP1 was supposed to be. I will continue to wait for the technology that enables a Contax T3-sized digital with a 1.3x (or better) crop factor. I'll probably wait a long time.

After the comments I saw about the noise I expected something truly awful, but looking at the shots at imaging-resource, that's not too bad at all. Much better at 6400 than my 7D at 3200 with 4x the pixels and double the linear resolution.

I also suspect that this noise will clear up very well indeed with a well-tuned noise reduction program, and that much of the difference we are seeing now between brands with visible noise is simply a measure of how good their on-board software is at clearing it up.

It's also worth noting that 'not very good at all given current competition' refers to cameras with half the pixel count. The only comparable camera that's yet been released, resolution wise, is the 1DsMkIII, and I've seen people complaining about the noise from that camera too.

Saying we're "back in Kodak film days, with a semi-usable Tri-X 400 pushable to 800 at a pinch" is also a bit exaggerated. The noise here barely registers compared to the grain in faster films. Not that noise is all bad, either, despite what the noise obsessives seem to think. I don't find it that objectionable.

As a long-time Minolta user (17 years), I watched the Sony takeover of the DSLR line with some interest; many Maxxum faithful on the forums were terrified of what this consumer electronics giant would do to their beloved system. By that time, I was quite fed up with Konica Minolta's lack of interest in doing much of anything related to SLRs/DSLRs (they had released only a couple lenses in the previous 10 years; the 7D DSLR was long overdue; and the only new lenses they released were rebadges, though excellent ones at that). After using the A700 for some months and now seeing the A900 I'm impressed with how well Sony has adhered to the design philosophies of the 600si/7/9/7D series. And the lenses ! What a great series of lenses in a short period of time. Still, when you have to go to the sonystyle.com commerce site to get information on the lenses, there's something decidedly consumerish about the Sony label. I know they do pro a/v gear; I know an a/v installer who loves Sony for its reliability, ease of installation and ease of use. I know that my own Sony products have held up with no problems over the years; more reliably that my old Minolta gear, in fact (and Sony handled the flawed sensor in my F717 with a recall). I know that my system is in better hands with Sony than I was with KM. But I do wish they'd spruce up their image; that website makes them out to be the Bose of digital imaging ;)

Doesn't Sony make the sensor in the D3?

Why would we not expect to see comparable IQ at very high ISO's from the Sony camera, albeit after outboard NR programs?

Hi Mike:
I've only looked quickly at the sample images on DPReview, but it looks like the color balance has changed. The images don't seem to be as exciting as 7D images. Also, the images seem flatter. What I've loved about Minolta images was that they seem to have great depth. Its like looking through a window and you can see a long way into the image, if that makes sense. Canon images always seem 'flat' by comparison, I feel like there's a distinct backstop to the image.

How do you think the A900 prints compare with the A700 and 7D images?

thanks,
eric

As a low ISO shooter I Nikon had a hard time when the D300/D3/D700 came out. All of a sudden folks are complaining about the D300 at 3200 ISO. A couple of months before that it was, well Nikons are OK at 1600 if you don't underexpose. I have done a couple of shots at meetings and at night with ISO 1600 and f2 1/30, what are these folks looking or I was shooting in almost total darkness. All you can say is there are always surprises.

Tom

With all the noise about noise at high ISOs, I'm wondering if there are any daylight digital photographers? Or do all the digital SLR shooters only shoot black cats at midnight in coal cellars ;-)

If they can sell a 24MP full-frame camera for $3000, they could have easily made a 12MP full-frame camera for about $2000 or even less. Now that would have been exciting for me.

"I'm wondering if there are any daylight digital photographers?"

Good low-light capability is very useful for indoors reportage or simply when living in Northern Eu or UK, where a winter "day" can be dang dark.

Mike, did you look at imaging-resource.com's samples? Is that ISO 800 sample clean enough for you? (Looks a bit dubious to me.)

By the way, that you want clean images at 800 ISO, does this not contradict your statements that noise is a non-issue? Or is it simply that we set our desired clean ISO-level at different numbers? :-)

A 24.6MP FF sensor, inbody AS & 100% viewfinder all for $3k or less, hmmm I think the 1DsMKIII is a tad expensive in comparison, especially if IQ turns out to be similar. Well I think it’s dead especially if the rumours are correct about the spec of the C5D replacement. We should find out on the 17th September.

Re: Paul H | Wednesday, 10 September 2008 at 04:52 PM

That's my thoughts too.
I always used 64 to 400 ISO film and anything higher was more for effect than practicality.
I look for quality of image at low ISO rather than noiselessness at 6400! A speed I'm never inclined to use.
My photography dictates nothing more than a clean 200 ISO usually. Sometimes I push to 400. The world beyond that isn't essential to 98% of MY photography.

"By the way, that you want clean images at 800 ISO, does this not contradict your statements that noise is a non-issue?"

I dunno. I just know I'd rather try not to judge a new camera on the second day after it's announced and two months before it ships.

Mike J.

"Also, the images seem flatter."

A lot of the pictures taken with the production A900 were using a 135mm lens, or a 24-70 at the 70mm end. It also looked like some of those (#6 comes to mind) were taken on rather overcast days.

In terms of the brand, well, I was a Minolta camera customer. Not a huge Sony fan as a general rule, but overall they seem to be keeping up the Minolta design philosophy and quality. I wish they'd ditch the Memory Stick thing, there's a funny comment about its utility buried in the DPreview review.

Come on, people, no live view! This camera is seriously crippled - all its direct competitors offer LV now. Many people enjoy that x10 magnification when manually focusing on a tripod. Currently no Sony camera can do that.

The comments above made me think I was on a DPR forum. No one has yet released a RAW picture using anything but the Sony converter. And that's with a pre-production model. Most of the pictures seen on the internet are JPEGs. So we really don't know what this camera is capable of yet. An interesting sidelight for Sony A700 owners has been the revelation of better high ISO files using what is still the "bootlegged" v.4 firmware. Given that the A900 has an in- menu "noise off" switch for high ISO together with a slightly higher pixel size and double the CPU of an A700, it would seem that the A900 is capable of keeping the noise to levels at least of the Nikon D300. Even Nikon and Canon fanboys should be cheering because Sony has set the bar high for a $3000 DSLR.

Dear Eolake,

Considering that Image Resources files were being viewed at 100%, I'd have to honestly say that ISO 1600 was noise-free enough for even a discerning viewer. On the typical monitor, that 100% view was like looking at a piece of a 4 x 6 FOOT print. Step back far enough to get to any plausible viewing distance for a print that big and tell me it wasn't clean enough, I dare ya [smile].

Seeing as that was a JPEG straight from the camera, not even a noise-ninja'd one, let alone a well-converted RAW file, I really don't understand how the folks who are declaring this camera useless at high ISOs are getting to that conclusion.

pax / Ctein

It completely baffles me why people are getting so worked up about what they're seeing in the early A900 samples. Of course, it's hard to spend any time in the dpreview forums without losing all hope for humanity...

My work is almost entirely night photography, and a lot of it is handheld. My camera for the last three years has been a Canon 5D, and I am now strongly considering replacing it with the A900. A few things seem obvious about the camera at this early stage:

1) Sony doesn't have anywhere near the expertise of Canon or Nikon when it comes to Raw-JPEG conversion. I spent a little while today playing with one of the sample raw files from Imaging Resource using Raw Therapee and it was immediately obvious that it will be possible to get much better quality using 3rd party raw converters than what we are seeing from the in-camera jpegs.

2) 24MP is an enormous amount of resolution, and comparing the amount of noise (at a pixel level) in a 24MP file to a 12 or 13MP file from a Canon 5D or Nikon D700 is pretty pointless. When I downsized one of the samples to 12MP and compared it to the D700, the noise levels seemed roughly the same. But with the A900 I would also have the option of slapping it on a tripod, shooting at ISO 200 and winding up with a file that I could make a huge print from.

3) The real revelation here (at least for me) is that this is a camera with a full-frame sensor AND built-in image stabilization. I currently do a lot of shooting with the 5D at ISO 1600, using either a 50 1.4 lens at about 1/50th, or a 24-105IS at f4, down to about 1/10 of a second. Looking at the image quality of the Nikon D700, I think I would probably be willing to step that up ISO 3200, gaining me a full stop. But with the A900, I could shoot with a 50 1.4 lens down to that same 1/10 of a second. The ability to use fast primes on an image-stabilized body would be a vast leap in what I'm able to capture handheld. Granted, I am shooting primarily landscape and still-life subjects, and this wouldn't have the same value for someone shooting subjects in motion. But for my purposes at least this is a very tempting proposition, and I am glad that Sony is pushing the envelope in this regard.

"I don't think you'll get a clean 800 and 1600 at a pinch; I think we're back in Kodak film days, with a semi-usable Tri-X 400 pushable to 800 in a pinch."

What makes you think that?

Mike J.

Mike - I think that based on two things.

I've seen some of the early test shots on the Sony that are now spread around a number of sites, and while some reviewers express great pleasure with the resolution, there are quite a few qualms about DR, color noise, and high ISO noise. I've now gone through the D1x, the Kodak Pro 14D (or whatever it was called -- this was a few years back), the D2x, the Leica M8, the Pentax K10D, the D3 and the D300, and still have the Leica and the latter two Nikons. I went on this weird trip to see if I could find something that would closely replicate film quality, and also give me a boost in the higher ISO range (I used to shoot a lot of things in archaeological museums, through glass, where the light was dim and flash was useless, and a good clean color-accurate 3200 was worth almost any price.) In buying and trying all those cameras, I first closely read all the reviews I could get my hands on, got burned quite a few times, and along the way, developed a sense of what people are saying in their reviews. The reviews I've read emphasize the the A900's resolution, which I would agree is very high; and I would even expect that the camera will make a good landscape camera when shot at its base ISO. And for people who are basically serious landscape photographers, and who otherwise mostly "shoot around," and don't have to worry much about ISOs - and that may be most people -- then the A900 may be an excellent camera. But the same reviews hint seriously at a number of problems with higher ISOs, and, as I've said, having become somewhat of a connoisseur of camera reviews, it makes me think that things ain't good -- especially when you remember that most of the reviews came from people who got special treatment from Sony in getting pre-release cameras. I don't have a precise technical reason for this; I have a meta-reason. I smell a rat.

The other reason is that Canon, a company that I'm sure has spent billions in researching the problem, hasn't come up with a solution to high-mp noise problems; the reason we don't yet have a high-mp Nikon is that apparently the Sony sensors don't meet Nikon standards, either; if they had, we'd have seen a Nikon match to the IDsIII a long time ago. If Nikon could even *match* the 1DsIII, I think they'd go for it.

So Sony comes out with a chip with 15% or so MORE pixels than the Canon?

I think that for top-end quality, the Sony will about match the Leica M8, which is very good up to about ISO 640, but starts showing troublesome noise at ISO 800. So if the Sony takes the usual steps of 100-200-400-800, I think you'll probably want to expose your super-resolution landscapes at no more than 400 @ f5.6 or possibly f8 (to avoid diffraction effects with that super-mp sensor).

Which is fine with me, and for the price, it's possible (we'll see) that landscape photographers should be over the moon about this camera. For other uses, though, maybe not.

In any case, that's why I think what I think.

JC

Personally, I have virtually no interest in Sony products or a 24 megapixel sensor. Buying into a system is more than bodies and lenses, it is buying into a capability with live and work with a system day in and day out, in rough seas and calm. A principal concern for me with respect to camera systems and motorcycles is "What is it like to live with (not have a fling with)? One of the principal reasons I shoot with one of the big two is because of the service and support infrastructure. CPS is a godsend. A lack of this support is what killed Oly in the pro market.

John,
So what you're saying is that, based on scanty early signs that amount almost to signals more than to evidence per se, you suspect it won't turn out to be the right camera for you. Okay, I get that.

Mike J.

uh-huh, what a nice camera. i think it will be a nice tool with good ergonomics and sony typical intuitive operation. Can't wait to hear it's shutter sound, if it's also sexy than the D700's which makes me hooked.

A shame that there is no viewfinder indication on the A900 when mounting APS-C-Format lenses...

"Capability begets application."

Funny how that works. Lately I've been thinking hard about getting a pigment-ink printer, and one printer that's caught my eye is the Epson 3800 - mainly due to cartridge replacement costs rather than any
need to make big prints. Despite the economics though, it still seemed silly to get a printer that big.

But now? It's starting to seem a lot less silly. Can anyone here honestly not see the attraction to an Epson 3800 + A900 + Zeiss 16-35mm combo?

Well I still think its as ugly as sin and the hand grip turns it into a Quasimodo wannabe.

I can't help thinking Minolta would have developed this camera in a more thoughtful manner rather than just cramming in more pixels. Camera manufacturers as opposed to marketeers.

Paul Mc Cann

The shutter/mirror sound reminds me of my old Pentax 6x7: KER-BLONK. The big ol' prism looks like a 6x7, too.

I think all the controls are even easier to use than all the big Nikons and Canons we have around here. Those four main control buttons near the shutter and the little top screen with big numbers all work very well.

It gives me a nice fat histogram and focuses where I want. The Zeiss 24-70 is primo.

I like it a lot. But I sold all my 6x7 gear because it weighed far too much to carry anywhere, and this thing seems just as heavy.

My 2 cents.

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