First impressions of the Alpha DSLR-A700, Sony's 12-megapixel digital single-lens reflex camera, brings to mind terms like "massive," "brick-like," and "complex". With its deep right-hand grip and 2.75-pound weight (which includes the zoom lens in the kit we tested), it feels big and heavy.
That impression is, however, a bit deceiving. The A700's body is comparable in size to the Canon EOS 30D I use, and most of the Sony's weight is in the lens -- the body, without a battery, is 24 ounces, less than the 30D or the Samsung Digimax GX-10 I reviewed at the same time as the Sony. Some of that savings in weight comes from the Sony's magnesium body, which should also add to its overall durability.
Unlike some other digital SLR brands, Sony did not go cheap on the kit lens bundled with its camera: The £935 plus VAT price includes a zoom lens with an appealing 24mm to 158mm (35mm equivalent) focal length. Purchasing the body alone reduces the price by £85. Apart from this lens, however, the number of other lenses and accessories available for this model is limited.
Complex the A700 certainly is -- it probably has more exposure controls than any other digital SLR I've seen to date. That said, the camera's ease of use is still exceptionally good: Like most current digital SLRs, it has fore and aft selector dials for quickly changing shutter speeds, aperture values, and exposure compensation. But it also has a healthy number of nicely placed, well-labelled, dedicated buttons for key controls such as white balance, drive mode, ISO setting, and metering modes.
My favourite feature, however, is the Function button on the back of the camera. In shooting mode, the A700 displays a comprehensive summary of your exposure settings on its three-inch LCD. By pressing the Function button, then working the mini-joystick and the selector dials, you can directly select and change any of the displayed settings right on the screen. It's extremely quick and intuitive.
Other high points for the A700 include slots for both Memory Stick Pro Duo and Compact Flash media; built-in optical image stabilization that works with all of Sony's Alpha lenses; five-frames-per-second burst shooting; three memory registers for custom user settings; plus a wireless remote and an HDMI port for viewing your images on a high-definition display.
Image bracketing options in the A700 are extensive: In addition to the usual automatic exposure bracketing, it has white balance, flash bracketing with one shot, and two levels of dynamic-range bracketing. This latter feature is useful in scenes with extremely high contrast. In a test shot that included the interior of a room and a window with a bright outdoor scene, turning up the dynamic range greatly improved shadow detail, though with a slight overexposure of the highlights.
My informal test shots with the A700 were mostly up to expectations. I was impressed with their overall sharpness, especially in macro (close-up) images. In photos with deep shadow and bright highlights, the A700 delivered significantly more shadow detail than did the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10K, the Samsung GX-10, or my Canon 30D reference camera.
Colour balance seemed a bit erratic, though: A scene taken in late afternoon sun with automatic white balance had a distinct blue/magenta cast. However, switching to daylight white balance produced accurate colors. In other shots, auto white balance produced perfectly acceptable colours. In our lab tests, the A700 earned high marks for exposure accuracy and for image sharpness, but it scored a bit below average for color accuracy.
Disappointingly, the image editing and image management software package Sony has bundled does a disservice to its camera. The three apps are poorly integrated, and are a mishmash of the overly simple and overly complex. The Image Data Converter SR application, for example, has a plethora of tools for editing and processing RAW format images--but almost nothing for editing JPEG-based shots.
For that, you have to go to the relatively low-end Sony Picture Motion Browser app, which is obviously more suitable for the company's point-and-shoot models. And while the RAW application comes in both Mac and Windows versions, Picture Motion Browser is Windows only. (That's not a big concern, though, because Apple's free iPhoto is a far better application.) The third application is the Image Data Lightbox SR, another simple app for viewing and organizing your photos.
With its sharp, 12-megapixel imaging and with more exposure controls than most photographers -- amateur or professional -- will likely use, the beefy and finely designed A700 rises to nearly pro-level photography, making it well worth its £935 price tag. It is limited mostly by its relatively narrow range of available lenses and accessories.