Saturday, 8 September 2007

Live View: Why Not?

The claws are out over the absence of Live View in the Alpha 700. Personally, it would have been a nice feature which may have the occasional use but not a terribly important ability in a DSLR as it is currently implemented. There are several plausible reasons why Sony decided not to follow the herd.

Marginal Utility: Without a swivel screen, the shooting position is still confined to an arc directly behind the camera. Possibly to reduce sensor heating, the frame rate on the D300 is only 15Hz which is quite jerky. The 40D supposedly has a refresh rate of 30Hz but the screen is only 320x240. The 40D does not have contrast detection AF but relies on flipping down the mirror to take AF readings. The D300 does have contrast detect AF but Nikon say it's only really for tripod work. All of these concerns can be addressed as the system is developed but as it stands, Live View has serious drawbacks in its operation.

Added Cost and Mass: Implementing Live View is not simply a matter of reading out the information from the sensor in realtime. The mirror has to be flipped up and the shutter left open for extended periods of time, similar to bulb mode. This will increase power consumption and may require new mechanisms to deal with the different operating mode. To make Live View useful, Canon have used two separate motors to flip the mirror and cock the shutter independently allowing the shutter to operate without the mirror flipping. This means added mechanical complexity, weight and cost, engineering effort which could be applied elsewhere instead. To make Live View really worthwhile, an articulated LCD is required which also would increase complexity, weight and cost.

Integration: Sony will not want to implement a feature without it being polished enough to match the rest of the camera. Live View, in the opinion of Sony it has been reported, currently is not in the proper state for prime time integration with DSLRs, though I'm sure they are working hard at making it work to the best of its potential.

Thus the question of having or not having Live View does not have such a clear cut answer. There are many engineering issues as well as the all important marketing angle and it seems Sony, for the present, has allowed engineering principles to take precedence.


It's been nearly 2 days since Sony officially unveiled the new Alpha 700, and reaction has typically focused on a differences, rather than similarities, with the other two recently unveiled DSLRs aimed at the same segment, the D300 and 40D. The main difference between the the A700 and the others is the presence or absence of Live View, a comparatively new feature on DSLRs. In the forums of various photo web sites, fanboys of various ilks have been parading their colours but fail to see the wood from the trees. It's a matter of a tool fulfilling a function and if a tool does well what it is meant to do, then it is a good tool and maybe worth its asking price.

Personally, I can see where Live View may be useful but it's absence will not be a big handicap for the shooting that normally like doing. Macro and underwater photographers may feel the lack more severely but since I do not do either on a regular basis, these applications are not driving my photographic needs. Fans of competing systems who do have Live View seem to believe that theirs is the One True Way and if Sony have chosen not to implement the flavour of the month, then we (Alpha Mount shooters) are all doomed by our choice.

But looking at a camera as a whole, instead of simply a sum of its specifications, we should really evaluate a camera as means to an end. As stated above, if your end is high magnification macro or underwater photography, a D300 may be a better tool with its contrast detection AF. However, if you are in the mainstream and looking for a camera that fits well in the hand, has a comprehensive and ergonomic control system (including vertical grip for some), most probably comparable AF performance and image quality, and the bonus of in-body image stabilization, then one cannot fault the A700.

I take photos because it's enjoyable, and a key to that is the process and tactility of handling the camera to take the shot. The main difference between a compact camera and an SLR is the degree of control one has over the picture making process. With a compact camera, usually one can only point it in a particular direction, perhaps change zoom to crop the scene, and press the shutter. The camera decides where to focus, what aperture to use and hence the depth of field (which is usually the whole scene for small sensor cameras), the shutter speed, exposure, whether to use flash, colour balance, and then recording a processed JPEG which has limited post-processing potential. Where manual controls are available, they are slow and unwieldy to use. With an enthusiast DSLR, the interface and ability to set the shooting parameters quickly and efficiently are the key features which sets it apart.

The Alpha 700 looks to retain the old Minolta spirit pioneered with the 600si, refined in the 7, and then carried through with the 7D. Though one may lament the loss of a knob and dial, it looks as if Sony have further refined the camera interface. The placement of the key buttons on the read of the body have been retained. The AF, AEL, AE mode dial and directional selector are still in their well placed positions. The vertical grip replicates the controls almost exactly meaning that shooting in portrait position should be as easy as in landscape. The replacement of the drive dial with a button press and control wheel is a main change, one that needs to be tried before a definite opinion can be formed. The change of the ISO button to the top is also another thing that has to be tested. But overall, the interface matches or exceeds that of its forebears.

The one thing that may prove to be a consumer gain over the 40D is the rear LCD. This is a 640x480 X-Fine dual mode LCD. This means that it can operate in transmissive or reflective mode so that it should be viewable both indoors and out. Reviewers have generally been effusive over the clarity of the display (apparantly shared with the D300). The extrememly fine pixel pitch (267 ppi) means that images look extremely good and that reviewing sharpness is improved.

So to compare with the 40D, we have Live View on one hand and the high resolution LCD on the other. The screen will be a feature that every shooter can appreciate whereas Live View may only be of practical use to a few. This may prove to be a deciding factor for buyers coming from the existing Sony consumer market which Sony hope to tap into, many of these will see cameras as a way of instantly sharing photos to others at social occasions and so the better screen will be a strong selling point. Due to the lack of AF in Live View mode on the 40D, this feature is not going to be useful to users who come from a compact camera background.

The D300 has Live View and a high resolution 3" screen so there is no advantage to the Alpha 700 on this front. The anticipated comparatively large step in price from the Alpha 700 to D300 (as opposed to the delta between the 40D and A700) may be a potential draw for the Alpha, but at this level, perceived brand values may play more of a role.

The lightness of the A700 may indicate that Sony is focusing on the female photographic market. It has fairly compact dimensions compared to the other two making it more friendly to smaller hands. On the other hand, the addition of the vertical grip makes for a formidable camera, especially wedded to a tele zoom like the 70-200mm SSM. So stylistically, Sony seems not to give anything away to its competitors.

On the lens front, the provision of the 18-250mm and 16-105mm lenses makes for a compelling package for first time DSLR buyers. Zeiss lenses in the line up offer upgrade potential. For the majority of buyers, the Sony lens line up is perfectly adequate, with the newly announced lenses offering a combination of convenience but also acceptable quality.

So looking at the bigger picture picture, the Alpha 700 is an attractive offering for newcomers not blinded by brand loyalty or gimicky fashion. All three competing cameras are good photographic tools and it will boil down to an individual tactile dialogue which camera suits them best. I think Sony have done a good job and I look forward to the time I can mount my own lenses to an Alpha 700.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Sony Alpha 700: Breaking News

18:03 BST 5/9/2007
Just noticed that the Alpha 700 has a 16:9 shooting mode, for fitting on HDTVs more easily I guess. Sony claim a 1/2 stop increase in the effectiveness of SSS, especially on tele lenses. I hope that they also fixed the low frequency drift which can sometimes make wide angle long exposures tricky.

17:30 BST 5/9/2007
Looks like there is a british site still open. A few things in english:
3 memories for settings
Manual flash control of inbuilt flash
Shutter 100,000 actuations
Silicon seals
3-layer optical low pass filter for less moire (how this impacts on resolution will be interesting)
Selectable additional High, Medium, Low levels of noise reduction at High EI
DRO optimization for RAW
Striped pixel array 3" 921K dot LCD. AR coated. RGB Histogram
Pentaprism,, L or M interchangeble screens
Supplied remote commander (for HDMI output) doubles as remote release (yay)
11 point AF and 11 lines (?). New AF motor. Macro focus f/2.8 sensor, AF Illunimator (Yay)
17 RAW buffer minimum, 5fps or 3fps selectable
0.9x 95% Pentaprism (not mirror), 25mm eye relief
141.7x104.8x79.7mm, 690g w/o battery
NP-FM500H 11.8Whr 1650mAh 78g

New Lenses:
DT 16-105mm/3.5-5.6 15 elements in 11 groups, 1 ED and 2 Asph elements
DT 18-250mm/3.5-6.3 16 elements in 13 groups
DT 55-200mm/4-5.6 13 elements in 9 groups

17:26 BST 5/9/2007
Looks like the leaks are being plugged. The flash ads are back to the Alpha 100 ones, and the Romanian site is not showing the Alpha 700 details anymore. Guess we'll have to wait till tomorrow for the official official word.

17:05 5/9/2007
A few random thoughts. I think the Alpha 700 will be for me. I don't think the image quality will be much different from the D300 as they both use the same type of sensor, the exception is that Nikon may have specified 14 bit ADCs and implemented live view which should not make a whole lot of difference. The ergonomics are growing on me but I'll have to handle one make sure. The vertical grip seems to be near perfect, I will definitely have to put that on the accessary list. Magnesium construction for body and grip is very good, much better than the VC-7D. The duplication of the controls is great. We'll see about the viewfinder, I will definitely have to have the ML screen installed, just like the one on my 7D. They'll be moaning that it's "only" 5fps compared to the 40D and D300, but it's not an issue for me at all. I don't care much for the HDTV out. It might make a nice feature in studios where yo can instantly show clients fairly hi-res previews of shots. All in all, I think it's a great package which will handle well and won't give an inch on the image quality front.

16:43 BST 5/9/2007
Looking at the Romanian flash site for the Alpha 700, it seems to confirm the more credible rumours: 12.24MP CMOS sensor EI100-3200 (6400 with boost), 3" 921K (dot) LCD, Al-Mg frame, some weather sealing, Interchangeable screens (M or L), Dual CF/MS slot, 11 point AF, 1/8000th top shutter speed, 1/250 or 1/200 flash sync (SSS off/on), 5fps continuous shooting speed, VG-C70AM magnesium vertical grip, InfoLithium battery NP-FM500H.

16:35 BST 5/9/2007
The Romanian Sony site has a flash animation of the new camera.
New features include a 3" hybrid X-Fine LCD. May have OLED technology?

16:22 BST 5/9/2007
It's official, the name of the new Sony DSLR is the Alpha 700. It has appeared on Sony websites. I will update this page as more information is released.