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Design

We're big fans of consistency across camera ranges and the Alpha 900 is - aside from the rather old-school pentaprism design and more solid build quality - surprisingly similar to its little brother, the Alpha 700. It may not be the prettiest camera ever designed (all a matter of opinion of course) but it is incredibly well built and has a clean, logical and functional layout that marries a sensible level of external control (there's a rash of buttons all over the body) with an excellent on-screen control system.

I have to say that we're very impressed with the A900's tank-like build and (relatively speaking) low weight. It handles incredibly well, which combined with the responsiveness and superb viewfinder, make it a pleasure for the serious photographer to use. Sure there are some niggles (some of the button placement could be better) but overall this feels like a mature, intuitive and unpretentious tool designed first and foremost for taking pictures. I can only presume the DSLR team has never met the guys behind the current range of Cyber-shot cameras... and I hope they never do.

In your hand

It's not a small camera (and with a hefty Zeiss zoom lens attached it's not a light camera either), but for someone who has just spent several months using the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and Nikon D3, the Alpha 900 feels far more 'portable'. Handling is generally excellent, and you rarely get the feeling that the camera is 'getting in the way' of your photography (this helped by the fact it's actually a lot less complicated than some of its competitors). They may not have pushed the boat out when it came to the visual appearance of the Alpha 900, but Sony's designers certainly thought about how the camera sits in your hand, which I guess is more important.

Side by side

As the shot below shows the Alpha 900 is fractionally larger than the EOS 5D - but only because of that huge lump of glass on top - and it's a lot lighter than the Nikon D700.

Camera Dimensions
(W x H x D)
Body weight
(inc. battery & card)
Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 156 x 117 x 82 mm (6.1 x 4.6 x 3.25 in) 895 g (2.0 lb)
Canon EOS 5D 152 x 113 x 75 mm (6.0 x 4.4 x 2.9 in) 895 g (2.0 lb)
Nikon D700 147 x 123 x 77 mm/5.8 x 4.8 x 3.0 in. 1075 g/2.36 lb.

LCD Monitor

The A900 features the same 3.0 inch 'XFine' TFT monitor as the Alpha 700, boasting 922,000 pixels (640x 3 (RGB) x 480). Again, we have to say, it's very, very impressive; sharp, detailed and contrasty, but it's the resolution that really catches your eye. At 270 ppi it's basically impossible to see the pixels with the naked eye, and the visual effect is similar to a good photo print. This makes checking focus in playback a lot easier without the need to zoom right in, and simply makes viewing saved pictures a real treat. We've seen LCD sizes creeping up over the last few years but the latest screens (featured on cameras such as the Alpha 900, Nikon D300 and Canon EOS 50D) represent a breathtaking step forward in quality. Very, very nice.

The GUI uses high resolution, beautifully aliased fonts and graphics to give an almost 'print like' quality that is easy on the eye even if it doesn't really make any difference to the actual taking of pictures (nothing wrong with that - I like the 11 speaker system in my car, but it doesn't make it go any faster).

Like the A700 the A900's screen has a pretty effective anti-reflective coating, and like the A700 you'll find yourself wiping smears from it pretty much every time you look at it.

Recording mode display

Once again the A900 uses the LCD monitor to provide a virtual control panel which summarizes camera settings (there are two levels of detail) and rotates automatically when the camera is placed in the portrait orientation, and which allows you to access the information shown in the display and change settings directly from there (more of which later).

A full breakdown of available information is shown in the diagrams below (camera in horizontal orientation on left, vertical orientation on the right). Note that the diagrams are in the most detailed mode.

Information (advanced mode)

  1. Exposure Mode
  2. Shutter Speed / Aperture
  3. EV scale / Exp comp. / Flash comp.
  4. Focus Area mode
  5. Metering Mode
  6. Sensitivity (ISO)
  7. Drive mode
  8. AF mode
  1. Creative Style
  2. Dynamic Range Optimizer setting
  3. White Balance
  4. Frames remaining
  5. Memory Card
  6. Size
  7. Quality
  8. Battery level

Viewfinder

Aside from the headline-grabbing sensor there's no doubt that the single feature Sony decided to concentrate on with the Alpha 900 was the viewfinder (even the design looks like the entire camera was built around the prism). And what a viewfinder it is; with 100% field of view and an incredibly bright, clear image it sets a new standard for this class of camera that I can't see being improved upon in the near future. The eye relief is a little tight (you need to get pretty close to see the entire engulfing view), but boy is it worth it. Start using the Alpha 900 'in the field' and you soon forget about fripperies like live view and simply enjoy the experience of a truly involving photographic experience.

There's the usual dioptre adjustment and an eyepiece shutter, plus eye-start sensors (which are simply used to kill the rear LCD monitor - there's no eye-start focus).

Viewfinder view

Through the viewfinder you will see the center spot-metering circle and 9 main AF areas indicated. The selected / in-use AF area(s) is/are indicated on a half-press of the shutter release with a red glow. The 'Anti-Shake scale' indicates how much the camera is having to compensate for movement, this is obviously a combination of the current actual movement, focal length and shutter speed, ideally you should be aiming to keep this as low as possible. The viewfinder display is very similar to the A700, and still doesn't show things like ISO, white balance or drive mode unless you're currently changing them (when, to be fair, it does so in a relatively clear manner).

  1. Flash Compensation
  2. Flash charging / wireless flash / high speed sync indicators
  3. Manual Focus
  4. Focus indicator
  5. Shutter Speed / Aperture
  1. EV scale / Exp comp. / Flash comp.
  2. AE Lock
  3. Shots remaining counter (buffer capacity)
  4. Camera shake warning
  5. Steady Shot scale
  6. Aspect Ratio 16:9

The focusing screen image in the diagram above is simulated.

LCD control panel

The biggest functional change over the Alpha 700 is the inclusion of a small LCD control panel squeezed between the gargantuan pentaprism and the control buttons on the top of the camera. To be honest I rarely used it - this is partly because the superb interface and Quick Navi system on the main screen is so superb, and partly because the top LCD is about as sophisticated as an early 80's hand-held frogger game. It's great for checking shutter speed, aperture and frames remaining, or whether you've got an AE compensation set (the only icon on the panel is the +/- indicator), at a glance - but not a lot else.

If you hold down any of the direct access keys (such as ISO, WB) you can see what's currently set (and change the setting using the dials), but they're not permanently displayed. The fact that the display appears to be based on a dime store digital watch also means that the values are displayed in what is occasionally rather crude and far from immediately obvious manner (High speed continuous, for example, appears as 'oooH') - there are very few icons. Still, I'm sure there'll be plenty of users happy to see an LCD on the top panel, even if it is verging on the redundant.

LCD control panel information

*1

Shutter Speed / Aperture
Exposure compensation
White Balance
ISO Sensitivity
Drive / Bracketing / Self timer

Unlike the larger more sophisticated displays on cameras like the Nikon D700, the Alpha's control panel doesn't show much information when you're not using it (just the shutter speed, aperture, frame counter, battery status and AE compensation icon). It's really there for changing settings without using the main screen on the back. When you press one of the four buttons on the top of the camera (AE comp, Drive, WB or ISO) the display changes to show the current setting and allows you to change it using the control dials. As mentioned above, the relative simplicity of the display takes some getting used to as the settings displayed are often heavily abbreviated. This isn't always a problem, but isn't exactly user-friendly, as the examples below show.

Changing White Balance Setting a bracketing mode
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