Sony makes a point of not calling this a "professional" camera, instead referring to it as the "flagship" model of its dSLR line. However, it's priced like a pro model, and its full-frame competitors — the Nikon D700 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II — are widely, though not exclusively, used by professionals. Finally, with such a high-resolution sensor you need a really sharp, preferably fast lens such as the Zeiss 24-70mm f2.8 we tested it with; lenses such as that are expensive and generally out of reach for all but professionals.
The A900 is Sony's first full-frame dSLR, and it sports the dual-Bionz image-processing engine.
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Furthermore, Sony provides some of the most innovative and pro-friendly accessories we've seen, such as its sideways rotating HVL-F42AM flash and VG-C90AM battery grip, which almost exactly mimics the control layout of horizontal operation when shooting vertically. As with other Sony models, the A900 remains compatible with Konica Minolta lenses.
The camera's design is reminiscent of, but not identical to, the DSLR-A700. At just more than 850g it's hefty, though it's lighter than the Nikon D700 and about the same as the 5D Mark II. A small status display on the top provides some limited information — shutter, aperture, battery and shots remaining — while the rest of the information appears on the back LCD. Like the A700, the A900 lets you access and edit all your settings directly via that display, which we happen to like. The controls take a bit of getting used to, since many of them look and feel the same, making it hard to remember their locations. It does provide three custom setting slots on the mode dial, which is very useful, and the large, bright viewfinder is a pleasure to use.
The A900 has two seriously crazy-making design flaws, however. First, there's no way to lock the navigation joystick, which you use to shuffle around AF-point selection. If you always use the Spot or Wide AF, which don't move, it shouldn't bother you. But if you use the Local AF, the selected AF point frequently gets changed by accident. Second, the Preview button is also far too easy to trigger accidentally, and when set for the Intelligent Preview it switches the camera into a different mode you have to escape. Everyone we handed the camera to accidentally triggered it. Click through the slideshow for more analysis of the A900's design. And while it's not really a design flaw, the A900's mirror is unusually loud.
Unlike its competitors, which use lens-based image-stabilisation systems, Sony opts for in-body sensor-shift image stabilisation, now dubbed "SteadyShot Inside". One of the A900's distinctive features is the aforementioned Intelligent Preview; hitting the depth-of-field preview button shows a temporary capture of the scene on the LCD, where you can tweak parameters such as exposure, white balance, shutter speed, aperture and so on and get a near-live preview of the changes.
Sony's cleverly designed flash rotates freely 180 degrees horizontally; unlike traditional flashes, this allows you to shoot portrait and landscape with the flash remaining in the same orientation. (Credit: CNET)
It's quite a neat idea, but in practice, we found the LCD didn't represent the image accurately enough to make all but the most basic judgements. It also supplies the typical array of features you'd expect to find, including Creative Styles, for customising contrast, saturation, sharpness, brightness and Zone (which preserves highlight or shadow detail, depending upon the setting); D-Range Optimizer (DRO) for expanding the dynamic range; and exposure (+/- 3 stops at 1/3 or 2/3 stop increments) white balance, and DRO bracketing.
Some pro-oriented features include a compressed RAW format that records 8-bit data instead of the standard 12-bit; (you can read an interesting discussion in Dyxum.com's forum that was raised for the A700 if you're curious); the capability to fine-tune the AF to compensate for back- or front-focus problems (unlike Nikon and Canon's mid-range models, the A900 only supports a single setting); and the capability to customise the operation of the buttons and dials. (You can download the PDF version of the manual for more details of its features and operation.)
To support the huge bandwidth required by its large images, Sony supplies the A900 with not one but two of its Bionz image processors. That helps the A900 maintain its respectable close-to-5fps burst rate (though even with a fast UDMA memory card, such as the 4GB SanDisk Extreme Ducati, the buffer fills quickly) and keeps high ISO shots from taking too long to process and save.
Performance and image quality
A camera in this price range doesn't really need to have great burst performance, but we do expect it to have fast autofocus and single-shot speed. Unfortunately, the A900 doesn't always meet expectations in this respect. For instance, its shot lag under optimal conditions tends to be inconsistent, ranging from as fast as 0.3 second to as high as 0.5 second — the former is quite good, the latter just OK. Shot-to-shot runs about 0.5 second. But our biggest gripe is with the relatively slow autofocus (at least with the 24-70mm f2.8 lens provided by Sony) in dimmer conditions, like indoor lighting. It's slow enough that we missed several shots of active kittens, and tests out at about 1.2 seconds to focus and shoot; that's about the same as a sub-AU$1,000 dSLR. The Nikon D90 feels more responsive. On the upside, DRO doesn't seem to slow shooting at all.
Technically, we think the A900 produces excellent photos: it has good noise numbers across the range, low colour variation, and so on, all of which manifest in the photos. However, after hundreds of photos, we still haven't experienced that "wow" moment we expect from a camera in its class. While it has the capability to produce sharp photos, usually they're not as sharp as we'd like. The high resolution lets you get away with a lack of sharpness, to a certain extent, since you don't have to crop in as far to get the same size print. Photos get noisy and a bit mushy starting at ISO 1600; we think the Canon 5D Mark II's look better. The colour is very good, bright and saturated or subtle when necessary. We have gotten some odd red-to-orange shifts using automatic white balance indoors.
The Alpha DSLR-A900 isn't bad for a first full-frame effort, but Sony has some catching up to do with Nikon and Canon, both of which have had far longer to refine their products in this class. (Though Sony's lack of a huge commitment to optical image stabilisation works in its favour here.) We really tried, but we just couldn't feel the love.
(Smaller bars indicate better performance)
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||Raw shot-to-shot time||
||Shutter lag (dim light)||
||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)