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It’s a SONY (with Minolta Genetics)


I really should not be writing this post now. Too many critical deadlines before year’s end. But I could not resist. I upgraded. And the new toy is too attractive. Upgrading to SONY and not to Canon is specific to my situation. YMMV: you may find similarities and differences to your own situation; or you may want to skip to the rest of this post, describing what I like (and dislike) in the SONY Alpha 850 and how it plays with Ubuntu / Free software.

Why This Time I Choosed SONY over Canon

In a nutshell: another case of vendor lock-in. Sort of.

Before switching to digital I was shooting with a Minolta Maxxum 700si, hence my interest in SONY. I kept the very good Minolta lenses and accessories over the years. Adding similar capabilities to a greenfield system would set me back of at least 3000$. Their resale value had plummeted with the fortunes of Minolta’s photo division.

I also have a Canon 350D, with lenses and accessories. The Canon was primarily a business tool and the investment was limited (as in: ROI is bigger if the investment is smaller). It still serves me well but is at the end of its useful life.

The decision to go Canon in 2005 was partly motivated by the 350D game-changing nature (although I kept shooting film with the 700si). But first and foremost it was frustration with Minolta’s digital products hopelessly trailing Canon and Nikon by a generation or two, leaving users like me orphaned. Eventually Minolta went out of the dSLR business and SONY acquired the leftovers.

From the beginning it was clear that SONY was aiming for the top. And it got there. By 2008, in slightly less than three years, SONY caught up with rivals Canon and Nikon in the main markets. But that year I was not ready to buy a new dSLR yet: I needed FullHD video recording and preferred a dedicated camcorder over Canon’s 5D MkII.

In the autumn of 2009 I was in the market for a new photo camera. SONY and Canon launched two game changers: both the SONY Alpha 850 and Canon 7D offer radically more features than ever at a price tag of 2000$. And they represent two different approaches to the market.

Canon with an APS-C sensor and the continuation of the photo/video hybrids that seem to appeal to the general public. SONY with a full frame sensor and a camera completely designed for traditional photography.

Convergence of photo and video is a good thing that will happen when the manufacturers will get it right. For now SONY’s approach wins if you ask me. In my opinion Canon’s design will need another iteration or two before hitting a sweet spot. There are many. Same camera with a full frame sensor would be one. Lighter and smaller form factor like Sigma’s DP1 around the same APS-C sensor would be another one. I wish my camcorder had an APS-C sensor. For now, I don’t see myself using a dSLR to capture movies – I need a tiltable display and I need a weight distribution that allows me to ergonomically and steadily hand hold the device for a few minutes. From my perspective, the 7D is almost right for photography: only the sensor size is wrong.

SONY on the other hand might have cut a few things from it’s flagship A900 to fit the A850 in the right price envelope; but it got the most important details right. The full frame sensor expands my creativity range beyond the APS-C sensor.

SONY Alpha A850: The Pros

  • Usability. SONY has added a layer of usability on top of the recognizable Minolta DNA. I did not need to read the handbook to start shooting and even to start accessing advanced functionality.
  • Ergonomics. Most functions are quickly and easily accessible, and are sorted logically.
  • In-body SteadyShot applies to all lenses. My good old Minolta lenses not only got an extended lease of life, they are more useful when shooting hand held and in low light conditions.
  • Intelligent Preview helps deciding on the right exposure.

SONY Alpha A850: The Cons

  • SteadyShot must be manually de-activated when shooting on a tripod, else the pictures will be blurry. I fell for this one on my first shooting day.
  • Bracketing limited to -2/+2 EV, like Canon. When will SONY learn from Pentax? Also Nikon has improved bracketing.
  • No speed improvement when limiting capture to APS-C size. What’s the point, then?

SONY Alpha A850: The Nuisances

These are no real disadvantages, just stupid details that could have been handled better in my opinion.

  • Handbook lack important technical details, e.g. about the difference between the RAW and cRAW format (is cRAW lossy or lossless compression?) or the effect of creative mode on the RAW file (none – it only influences the JPEG and the default RAW conversion parameters). But who cares? Who reads handbooks anyway?
  • Memory Stick. SONY is a sore loser on this one. The dead weight and space occupied by this relic of proprietary  technology could have had better use for a second compact flash slot, with switching functionality like Canon and Nikon. Stupid but not critical.
  • Proprietary USB plug. Sure it also features a composite video on the same plug, but what’s the point of displaying the camera’s output on a 640×480 low resolution display when it already has a built-in LCD with better resolution and an HDMI output? I rather have a standard USB plug. I don’t really use the USB (nor the video output) – just extract the compact flash card and plug it into the card reader.
  • No support for my old Minolta 5400HS flash. It syncs at a paltry 1/200; and it does not set the exposure right. I’ll have to buy a SONY flash next year. Support for the 5400HS would have been too good to be true.

Software

SONY has a track record for being very proprietary about its products and file formats. I feared they would not play well with Free software and I was ready to return the camera if it could not fit in my workflow.

The good news is that SONY’s own Image Data Converter SR plays well with Wine on my Ubuntu 9.04 notebook, even at its underpowered 1.6 GHz. There were a few display hickups, most notable the Area Selection Tool. I did not try the Remote Camera Control and I did not like the Image Data Lightbox.

RAWstudio is my favorite RAW converter in Linux. I don’t know what SONY does to its RAW files, but using the in-camera’s white balance in RAWstudio yields a washed-out picture with a reddish color cast. A slightly better result is achieved with auto white balance:

The problem affects also LuminanceHDR (formerly qtpfsgui). This time the color cast is cyan.

Results

While I prefer to shoot RAW, I shoot RAW + JPEG initially until I am confident that my workflow can process the RAW files. So the following 1:1 crop is from a JPEG, slightly edited with GIMP.

The SONY Alpha 850 is truly mouth watering! But now I better go after my prior obligations…

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