Like a mythical bird rising from the ashes of Konica Minolta, Sony's first digital SLR, named the Alpha DSLR-A100, marks the company's entry into the big leagues of digital still imaging. With a 10.2-megapixel CCD sensor, a bevy of convenience features, an updated version of Konica Minolta's CCD-shift image stabilization, and a design that improves slightly on the Maxxum 5D, Sony has delivered a worthy competitor in the sub-$1,000 dSLR market. Since the camera accepts Maxxum AF lenses, anyone with an existing collection of such lenses should be plenty happy with this camera. At the same time, the DSLR-A100 offers a very serious alternative to the usual Canon and Nikon offerings for dSLR newbies. Sony offers the DSLR-A100 three ways: a body only; in a kit with the body and an 18mm-to-70mm lens; and in another package that includes the body, the same 18mm-to-70mm lens, and a 75mm-to-300mm lens.
Editor's note: This review has been updated since originally posting on July 20, 2006. The review has been changed to reflect subsequent competition, which led us to raise the Design rating from 7 to 8 and lower the performance rating from 8 to 7 thereby reducing the overall rating from 7.5 to 7.3. Sony definitely benefited from its purchase of Konica Minolta's DSLR know-how. The Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 's body feels very comfortable in our hands, which makes sense since it closely resembles the now-defunct Maxxum 5D. Sure, Sony added a bit of flair with some shiny, black plastic around the shutter and on the edge of the pop-up flash, and also moved some controls around, but it would be easy to mistake the DSLR-A100 for the 5D if the two were sitting next to each other.
Chief among Sony's design tweaks was to put a bunch of often-used controls on a dial to the left of the flash. All you have to do is select a function--such as ISO, white balance, or metering mode--and press the function button in the center of the dial to change that setting. In our field tests, it made choosing functions quick and easy. It's not quite as easy to control as the Konica Minolta 7D, with all of its dedicated dials and buttons, but it is a definite step up from the 5D and other dSLRs that scatter so many dedicated function buttons throughout the camera back and top. Unfortunately, Sony left the drive mode button on the top of the camera and moved it further back, away from the shutter button. We found it awkward to press, and since the 5D had three buttons on its back, it could have easily fit there rather than in its current position.
Other buttons are logically placed, including the usual lineup of menu and playback controls that flank the 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD screen. The antishake control--now renamed as Super Steady Shot, even though it's a CCD-shift instead of the lens-shifting stabilization that's found in other Sony cameras with an identically named feature--has a dedicated on/off switch on the bottom right of the camera back. If you're new to SLRs, you'd probably count the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100's 10.2-megapixel CCD as its biggest feature. SLR veterans, however, will look past the pixels to the camera's wide array of other features. For example, if you shoot a lot of action, you'll probably like the eye-start autofocus. A sensor below the viewfinder activates the camera's autofocus whenever it's tripped. So, when you look through the finder, your face triggers the sensor, and the camera starts locking the focus right away. While useful for certain situations, it can be annoying and tends to drain your battery more quickly, since it'll also start focusing if any object comes within about an inch of the sensor.
Of course, the Super Steady Shot image stabilization is one of the camera's biggest selling points. According to Sony, they've updated Konica Minolta's CCD shift technology and now claim between 2 and 3.5 stops of leeway in exposure, so you can shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds. In our field tests, we found that, while 3.5 stops is a stretch, they're right about the 2 extra stops. That means you can set your shutter speed 2 stops lower than your slowest comfortable speed and still expect reasonably sharp images--you'll have to make sure your subject stays still though. Since the image stabilization moves the sensor, you don't have to buy premium lenses to get the advantage, as you do with Canon and Nikon's image-stabilized lenses.
Speaking of lenses, since the Alpha system uses the same lens mount as Konica Minolta's old Maxxum dSLRs, most Maxxum AF lenses and third-party AF-mount lenses work with the DSLR-A100. Just remember, the camera's APS-C-size sensor gives you an angle of view that's equivalent to that of a lens with a 1.5X greater focal length compared with a full frame of 35mm film. So, the 18mm-to-70mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 lens included in the Alpha kits becomes the approximate equivalent of a 27mm-to-105mm lens. Sony makes no guarantees of lens compatibility beyond the Sony Alpha lenses that it is marketing, but a Minolta lens that we tried worked just fine. Plus, as the Maxxums do, the DSLR-A100 shakes the sensor each time you turn the camera on or off to help keep it free of any dust that may enter the camera while switching lenses. Sony also coats the sensor with a special coating to avoid static buildup, which would attract dust particles.
As you'd expect, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 has the usual array of metering options, including 40-segment honeycomb pattern MultiSegment, center-weighted, and spot. As for autofocus, you can let the camera choose from nine focus segments, you can choose one of your own, or set it to use only the center-spot segment. At any time, you can switch to center-spot AF by pressing the button in the middle of the four-way rocker on the camera back.
ISO is, perhaps, the biggest surprise in the A100. In addition to normal options for ISO 100 through ISO 1,600, there are Lo80 and Hi200 options. The last two aren't just extensions of the ISO range, as with the boost modes offered by Nikon, Canon, and others. Instead, they're intended for low-key and high-key images, or in regular terms, really dark or really light scenes. Lo80 emphasizes detail in dark portions of a picture, even if it is at the expense of some detail in brighter areas. And Hi200, which is closest to ISO 200 in its sensitivity, is customized to eke out more detail in brighter parts of your images, although it may sacrifice some detail in the darkest areas. Both of these seem useful for photographers interested in becoming more creative, but we wish Sony would've offered an ISO boost to an equivalent of ISO 3,200, since most dSLRs include this.
Other interesting features include D-Range optimizer, which automatically adjusts contrast and color during capture, and white-balance bracketing, which varies the color cast when you shoot three photos in a row, to help make sure that the camera properly compensates for your current lighting condition. It could come in handy, especially in mixed lighting, though your best bet is to shoot in raw format in such situations, so you can vary your white balance during processing.