Sunday, 24 July 2011

Ergonomic Comparison A700 vs A580: Lessons for the A77

With the rumoured A77 gaining more solidity every day, there has been much discussion over its looks, especially the ergonomics of the button and switch layout. The A77 has to live up to some lofty expectations, it has to stand in the shoes of the Dynax 7D and the A700. The a700 was a clear evolution of the 7D layout, losing one knob, eliminating the dials, adding extra buttons, but still retaining the main button grouping for the right hand. If we now look at the purported images of the new A77, we see a further iteration of the control layout which consolidates the trends seen in Sony alpha cameras.

Front of rumoured A77, credit Pyoshin at

Rear of rumoured A77, credit Pyoshin at

I have been lately been using the A700 and A580 together on shoots. The A700 is usually loaded with the Tamron 70-200mm/2.8 lens and the A580 with a shorter focal length prime or zoom. This means I can take a mix of wide/normal shots with tele shots without lens changing, especially important for covering events like weddings. Shooting in the way means that I have gotten to appreciate the ergonomic differences between the two cameras. The A77 images show that the layout has strong resemblance to both the A77 and A580 so this post will reflect on how the both work in practice. This is all my personal experience, it may not apply to anyone else so it is best to handle and work with any camera for a reasonable amount of time before declaring its worthiness.

With the very noticeable absence of a replacement model for the A700, the advanced alpha APS-C shooter has been left in a bind. The choice is between stepping up to the A900/850 full format cameras, soldiering on with the A700 for as long as possible, or else find an alternative body to use. The A580 for me meets enough of the features for an A700 substitute to use. It is clearly not in the same ecological niche as the A700 but its mix of features, especially the performance of the 16MP sensor, is extensive enough to act as a proxy in many cases. The main differences are to do with the ergonomics, simplifying in some cases, but also extending it in others to accommodate new features such as live view and movies. I will concentrate on comparing the features of the A700 rather than any new functionality of the A580.

The first thing to notice when picking up both cameras is the different on/off switch placement. The A700 has a slider switch on the top left back, the A580 a rotary switch surrounding the shutter release. The A700 placement is the same as for the Dynax 7D and the Dynax 7 film cameras. The A580 placement reflects that of all recent alpha models. After getting used to the A580, I have to admit that this position is quite handy in fact. The design of the switch doesn't get in the way of the shutter or the front control wheel. It's easy to switch on the camera in one motion when taking the camera out. Relocating this function to the right hand actually makes sense when carrying large/heavy lenses as you don't have to remove the left hand from supporting the lens to operate the camera. This basic design decision is one which is increasingly carried over in subsequent cameras.

Next, the A700 has a dual control wheel setup. I have set the option for the front wheel to control aperture (I shoot in A mode 99% of the time) and the rear wheel to control exposure compensation. This works extremely well, I can quickly change exposure compensation without going into menus. The A580 lacks a rear wheel but instead has a +/- button which takes you into the exposure compensation menu. This is considerably slower and is far less satisfactory than the A700. Encouragingly the A77 images show a rear control wheel so hopefully it can configured the same way. With in-EVF histogram display, hopefully this will lead to far better and faster exposure control. The front control wheel on the A700 is better positioned, the A580 places it too far away from the shutter and at a more awkward angle, mostly due to the presence of the on/off switch. In use, it doesn't seem to be too much trouble to use the A580 front control wheel, but it could be better. The A77 seems to be halfway between the A700 and A580 in this regard.

The A700 does feel better in hand than the A580. It is probably to do with the greater height of the grip, different materials, and the more sculptured thumb rest incorporating the rear wheel on the A700. The squeaky card door on the A580 does not help. That being said, the grip of the A580 has been perfectly adequate for me, it's just that the A700 just feels nicer to hold, especially with big lenses.

The buttons I use most, aside from menu, display, and fn, are ISO and Drive. The A580 actually is better for me, being accessible by the shutter finger rather than the thumb (reaching over) on the A700. The button I mostly miss on the A580 compared to the A700 is the rear AF/MF switch. To switch into MF mode on the A580, one has to use the slider on the left lower side of the body, or else a lens switch if present. This slows things down a lot compared to the thumb press on the A700. The button makes a welcome return on the A77.

The A700 uses a mini-joystick whilst the A580 uses a direction pad. The joystick just feels much better to use, though both are functionally equivalent. In shooting mode, its main function is to select AF points and the joystick gives a much more tactile method of selecting the points by pushing it in the desired direction. The direction pad requires a positional selection of the correct button instead. A handy feature of the A700 is that a central push of the joystick centers the AF point which is very handy when you need to switch to that very quickly, it is a much slower process on the A580 to first determine which point you have selected, and then push the right sequence of buttons to center the AF point.

The metering mode rotary switch on the A700 is not missed. I tend to leave it on multi-segment metering, hardly ever in spot mode. Occasionally I will put it in centre-weighted but it doesn't seem to warrant a whole switch. Its lack on the A77 will not be an issue for me.

One thing which I have missed is the SSS switch. Changing from hand-held to tripod use, switching the SSS off is easy, and vice versa. Also, depending on the lighting conditions and shooting circumstances, it is useful to be able to select SSS on a shot by shot basis. It will be interesting to see if the A77 will allow the use of one of the buttons as a toggle switch for SSS.

The A77 seems to consolidate all except for the menu button on the right hand side of the rear. This actually makes some sense as in usual shooting position, the left hand is supporting the lens, especially if it is a large or heavy one. I have found that on the A580 it was much more convenient to review and delete shots on the fly when the 70-200mm/2.8 lens was mounted than on the A700 which required the left hand to come off the lens to activate the left mounted buttons. Else, I had to take the right hand off the grip to press these. Hence I am not too concerned about the A77 having most of the rear buttons on the right hand side.

Straying a bit from pure ergonomics, the performance of the A700 still exceeds that of the A580 in certain areas, mainly AF. The A700 seems to be quickly and more positive than the A580, especially with the 70-200mm/2.8. The viewfinder is better (inevitable considering the QuickAF liveview system of the A580), and the lighting of the AF points is more visible. The PC sync socket on the A700 has saved me on occasion when I have forgotten to bring my hotshoe adapter to the studio. However, the standard mini-USB socket on the A580 is an improvement to the one on the A700 which requires a less commonly available cable. Switching card slots is more convenient on the A700, the A580 requires that the camera be turned off before the physical switch be operated, whilst the menu driven switch on the A700 is more convenient.

In summary, there are distinct ergonomic evolutionary changes between the A700 and A580, not all of which are to the detriment of usability. Hopefully, in the design of the A77 this will put right most of the notable omissions in the A580 and improve on the ones already added.