I didn't get to do much shooting yesterday—an old friend was in town from Chicago for a visit, and the weather turned dull. You can make great pictures in dull weather, of course, but I just wasn't feelin' it. I have two more things to say about the Sony A900 this morning, with hopes that I'll get some more shooting in later today.
Is it ugly?
Coming so close on the heels of my "car aesthetics" post slamming Die Deutsche Rolle, several people felt moved to write to me excoriating the A900 for ugliness. Ironically, after saying in that post that I look at the world through an aesthetic prism, I have to admit that I don't really look at cameras as aesthetic objects any more. I used to be quite the aficionado of the camera-as-object: classic wooden and metal view cameras are often things of beauty (or can be, anyway), and Germany in the middle of the 20th century (say, the '20s until the '70s) was a locus of camera-as-art creativity. It's fun and gratifying to appreciate the industrial design and the exquisite machining of old Rolleis and Leicas and so forth, and to hold other cameras up to those standards to see how they compare. I like many of the metal Japanese cameras, too, with an especial fondness for the plain but pure design of the Spotmatic (despite its Achilles' heel, the stop-down metering switch, and the fact that its odd high-'60s nomenclature survived the removal of the spot metering function).
But I just haven't felt that way about polycarbonate cameras. To me they're not aesthetically pleasing objects, not objects to love. In the '90s, maybe as long ago as the '80s, Bill Pierce (who has a nifty new website, by the way) dubbed them "Wunderplastik": the lumpen black blob stuffed with electronics. They're better cameras, or at least different cameras, and there's nothing wrong with them. But I've seldom been satisfied with them as objects in themselves. The best ones are...okay. Are any of them beautiful? I guess I don't think so.
With modern cameras, beauty is as beauty does. If they work well and do what you want them to do, then they're "beautiful." But it's their tool-quality that you appreciate: they are devices for turning the look of the world into pictures, and if they do that competently, then they're fine, thanks. Object-quality doesn't really enter in.
The bottom line under this head is that I don't find the Sony A900 to be ugly at all. I think it's quite attractive, actually. Some people might not like the shape of the prism, but hey: any prism that wants to give me such a big, beautiful, uncluttered 100% view when I look through it is A-O.K. in my book. I couldn't care less what it looks like when I look at it.
Old home week
The A900 is the first full-frame DSLR I've used. I have no doubt that my reaction would be exactly the same if the first one I tried had been a 5D or a D700. The upshot is that for many years I shot with 35mm SLRs with a 35mm ƒ/2 or thereabouts as my main lens, and it's just nice to get back to that again. It feels like going home.
I've said before that I think there are a lot of advantages to the smaller APS-C or 4/3 sensor size, and I still think that's true. The conventional wisdom is that "full"-frame—24x36mm—is the coming thing, what with, what, a whopping five full frame cameras on the market now? But in the long run it's not clear whether the relatively smaller or the relatively larger sensors will win out. Full-frame has some momentum right now, but I think it's just as likely that APS-C and 4/3 will carry the day in the end.
Dennis Allshouse reminded me that in a column called "Thoughts About 'Full Frame,'" written several years ago, I said, "My bet is that whatever we end up thinking of as ideal in terms of pixel count and image quality in an SLR-style camera for sports, editorial, and news work is going to fit just fine on the 16x24mm, APS-sized sensor area. Gradually, lenses purpose-built for the format will replace 35mm lenses as the standard line, and 16x24mm will be full frame."
That's happened only more-or-less. If there's been one major failing of the smaller ~16x24mm format, it's that the cameramakers basically failed to come through on its behalf: stuck with an installed base of legacy lenses and (critically) a legacy flange-back distance, the anticipated miniaturization of the lenses never entirely took place, and now, a decade or so into the APS-C era, the cameras in general still suffer from two major faults: 1) a paucity of wide-angle lens options, and 2) poor viewfinders, which range from inadequate to adequate without aspiring to attain the heights of very good or better.
I don't want to be too doctrinaire about this. It's a known fact that we humans tend to like best what we're most used to. There's no question that I was most used to film cameras that were very similar to what this Sony give me in digital: a very clear, open view through the viewfinder, and a true 35mm angle of view (63° diagonal) with a "right-sized" ƒ/2 lens. I'm comfortable here; it's what I like, and it fits how I like to shoot. It's been surprisingly hard to replicate with smaller-format digital cameras, and this has been a source of considerable frustration for me over the past eight years or so.
But—all that said—it's just a delight to get back to an outstanding viewfinder and my favorite angle of view, my favorite lens type. That I've missed it is no surprise—I was perfectly well aware that I missed it (in fact, my friends Carl and Oren and I had a long private conversation about it just recently)—but it's really nice to get it back. Again, I have no doubt that I would have the same reaction were I to use a Canon 5D with a 35mm ƒ/2 EF lens, or a Nikon D700 with an AF-Nikkor 35mm ƒ/2.
So this is not unique to the A900—it's a reaction to full-frame DSLRs in general. But it is certainly my overriding first impression of the A900.
Featured Comment by Michael: "About beauty in a camera: it's not a visual thing so much as a tactile thing. When I pick up this Pentax K20D and it fits my hand so well, and then I manual-focus the Zeiss ZK lens, and it snaps into focus...oh yes, that is beauty! Same thing in a hammer: it can be beautiful, but only as it fits the hand and hits the nail."