This morning we resume our countdown of cameras we currently recommend. We started at #10 and will reach #1 this coming Friday. To see the previous choices, scroll down. —Ed.
This one is Yr. Hmbl. Editor's favorite digital camera yet, and perhaps one of my half-dozen favorite cameras ever.*
For all the times you hear "cameras are tools," that's not really entirely true, is it? Sure, they're a means to an end. And if you're working pro, maybe "tool" describes everything they are. But for most of us—be honest, now—there's a bit more to it than that. We like cameras for another reason as well. Because they're really cool toys. Oops! Sorry—lost my head! Everybody knows you're not allowed to say that.
Cameras are tools. Yes. They can also be amazingly well-engineered and pleasing technological devices—interesting, fascinating, appealing, nicely made. At their best, they can be quite beautiful as objects. And when they are, it can make them more fun and satisfying to own and use.
How ironic is it, then, that the single most "classic" DSLR now being made (whether or not you like its shape—more on that below) is being produced by an electronics giant rather than a traditional camera company? Granted, it has that Minolta DNA, and Sony is no stranger to cameras of other types. But still, of all the premium and semi-premium DSLRs being made today, the one that comes closest to classic style, the one that has the best tactile quality, the one that actually has a little panache as an object of craftsmanship...is a Sony.
The Sony Alpha 900, a.k.a. A900, to be precise. (Check the new price at the link, too. About time it came down a notch.)
It came along at the wrong time, of course. It has not taken the much-diminished top of the market by storm. That part of the old Minolta heritage might have been transferred to Sony a little too much intact. Despite its success as a maker of consumer cameras (it was a very successful company until it had to absorb the body-blow of the Honeywell lawsuit), Minolta made numerous attempts over the years to crack the top tier, and never did much more than produce well-engineered, R&D-intensive (read: expensive) also-rans. In that respect the A900 is the uneasy heir of the Maxxum 9, the Minolta 9xi, and even the XM/XK of 1973.
Sony went for the brass ring, hoping that by blowing away the market in the megapixels-per-dollar contest it would score a big hit. Unfortunately it didn't count on the influence of the competing marketing magic bullet: high-ISO performance. The A900 has gotten a much worse rap than it deserves on that count—I've seen some really stupid things said about it. What you have to remember is that when you view a 24.6 megapixel image at 100%, you're looking at a really big image; noise shows up more easily. In prints of anything remotely like normal size, 1600 is a usable speed in practice. Still, it's not a standout for low light.
In fact, although it does perfectly fine as an all-around camera, its strengths and weaknesses push and shove the A900 (kicking and screaming, as they say) into being something of a niche product—it's not entirely absurd to think of it as a medium-format digital back in a 35mm-SLR-style body. Instead of an overachieving all-rounder, it thus becomes a camera for a) landscapists, b) fine artists, and c) fine printmakers. (For artist or landscapists who are fine printmakers, the A900 is your holy grail, or should be. I'll stipulate that a D3X might have slightly better IQ, but it would also be bulkier and heavier in a bag or backpack.)
Niche or no, she's a beauty. The A900 looks and feels better built—and has more of that undefinable, pride-of-ownership-inducing classic camera style—than anything currently made by Canon or Nikon, period. It also has the no-nonsense feature set that we might expect from a much more tradition-bound company.
Now, about that shape. Some people don't fancy the fact that the prism determines the shape of the top of the camera, and they call the A900 "ugly" on that account—O, base canard. Form follows function, as Louis Sullivan and I always say**. Plus, they're looking at it all wrong. To see just how beautiful or ugly that awkward pyramid really is, you look through the Sony's finder, not at it. It's obviously a work of art, one that also puts the older camera companies to shame on their own ground.
And the picture files...in the A900, everything has been sacrificed for image quality. The camera might not get the best balance of image properties out of every situation (I'd rather have a Nikon at night), but for what it's good at, it's superlatively good. Its files will absorb more processing than most cameras' files will (especially highlight recovery), and even the character of the noise is pretty. The best of its image files are better than what you can eke out of the Nikon D3 or the Canon 5D Mark II. And unless you're a real diehard, there's not as much reason as there used to be to even want a medium-format digital back.
Again, if you make your living making and selling fine prints and prefer a camera you can carry, stop here.
*Disclosure: I don't own any of the cameras on this list. This should be obvious, so please pardon me for mentioning it, but, unlike some camera forum denizens, I don't write about cameras merely from a perspective of trying to justify or defend my own purchase choices.
Inset photo: courtesy The Rokkor Files
**"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law."
—Louis Sullivan, architect, from "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," Lippincott's Magazine, March 1896.