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September 11, 2008 — As I write this, the Sony A900 was introduced only two days ago. The basic nature of the camera has long been known—Sony first started talking about it a year and a half ago, and its evolution has been more or less an open secret since then. It’s to be Sony’s “flagship” (the word was virtually the “in vitro” name of the camera), that is to say, the top of the line—so it’s meant to be a premium, deluxe product that has some capabilities that distinguish it from lesser models. It’s a mid-sized camera (for a DSLR) with a 35mm-sized sensor, a generously large and bright viewfinder with 100% coverage, built-in image stabilization, and a new, high-resolution sensor capable of making large prints (the specification is for a print that is more than 20 inches in the long dimension at a full 300ppi).
Although early production units are in beta-testers’ hands and a number of review samples have been passed out to the bigger sites and magazines, the camera can’t be purchased yet by the average man or woman on the street. Very few people have used it at all yet, and fewer still have long-term experience with it. Despite that, based on the remarkably scanty evidence of a few early tests that in some cases are demonstrably being misinterpreted, people all over the Internet are hotly pontificating about what the camera is or isn’t, and can and cannot do. Judgments and pronouncements are flying.
Sony A900 with battery grip
I don’t really have a lot to say here, other than express amazement that people are willing to get so lathered up on so little evidence. It’s almost as if we’d gotten an abrupt introduction to a previously unknown politician and were forced to decide, on little evidence and less familiarity, whether she’s a star and a savior or a dunce and a danger—all before her first official press interview as a candidate!! That would boggle the mind of any scrupulous, fair-minded, judicious person, now, wouldn’t it?? I mean, really.
No one would ever do that.
And yet with cameras it’s different, somehow. With cameras, we toss our good judgment and our intelligent reserve cavalierly out the window. Little morsels of evidence are held up under the virtual klieg lights with long tweezers and examined from every direction; great final pronouncements are extrapolated from these tidbits, some in one direction, some in the other—by different people but from the same scanty information. Rumors are set to cooking. People choose sides. Infighting gets progressively, rapidly, more intense. Tempers heat up. (Why won’t these idiots see it my way?) Pretty soon, it’s: the A900 is this. Or, the A900 is that. Presumptions calcify. And before you know it, the thing has gotten…ah, yes…a reputation.
All before anybody can even buy the darn thing. All before we really know anything about it. All when just a few reviewers have posted preliminary reports. A reputation, all right, but one based mainly on fancy, supposition, assumptions, with just the lightest limning of fact enlightening the outermost edges of the storm and fury.
Why does this seem to happen whenever any important new camera is introduced? It would probably make a good subject for a sociological study. But even in the absence of such a study, one thing seems certain: it doesn’t reflect well on us, either way. Are we after real information, or is it a simple popularity contest, decided on the most superficial of factors? And how do we feel when we come down hard on one side or the other, only to find out later that we were…er, well, wrong?
The Sony A900: This trial’s a long way from closing arguments
Sony A900 with HVL-F58AM flash
I would suggest that the proper attitude when a new camera gets introduced would be best embodied in three old, bland words: wait and see. Over-the-moon swooning about how great and wonderful the camera is, how it’s just what the speaker always wanted, how no camera can possibly eclipse it, etc., is really no smarter than jump-the-gun dismissals and dark apocalyptic dread about how terrible the noise will be, how some early samples look terrible and it won’t be possible to make a picture at more than ISO 400, how Sony has not really proven itself as a camera company and is not to be trusted, and so on. And vice versa.
It’s an old principle called reserving judgment. You want to reserve judgment so you won’t look like an idiot down the road when it turns out everything you’re assuming is wrong, that’s true, but another aspect of all this is that not reserving judgment when you ought to can actually prejudice your later judgment. That is, if you decide on scant evidence that it’s the camera for you and that’s that, you’re more likely to overlook or dismiss possible weaknesses and incompatibilities to your work as they’re revealed. If you decide that you hate the thing right from the get-go with very little reason, you’ve set in motion a self-fulfilling attitude that might be difficult to overcome later, and might prevent you from realizing that a new product is actually a good choice for you after all.
Personally, my attitude towards a new product is always a tendency to consider it from one of two ways: hmm, looks like it might be tasty and wonderful, let’s wait and see; or, jeez, don’t see much point in that, but let’s wait and see.
Furthermore, I never assume that even a top-of-the-line model has to be all things to all people. Everything’s more or less appropriate for certain people and certain uses; no product can be all things to everyone all the time.
So, finally, a few words of advice about the wonderful-and-tasty-looking Sony A900: yes, it might offer virtually the same resolution as the Canon 1Ds Mk. III but at half the price; we’ll have to wait and see. Yes, it might have more noise at high ISOs than some of its competition; but bear in mind that we’ve only seen in-camera JPEGs and RAW conversions from Sony’s own converter so far; better to withhold judgment until other RAW converters (especially ACR) can handle A900 files. (And wise to bear in mind that we’ve never seen files this big online from a DSLR before, so you’re peeping deeper into the pixels than you’re used to doing.) Sure, the built-in IS is either going to be an incredible low-light boon with fast, wide lenses, or perhaps (being the first full-frame sensor IS) it won’t work as well as in-lens or APS-C sensor IS; implementation is everything when it comes to this feature (so, yes, we’d better wait and see). Shutter noise, responsiveness, viewfinder size and brightness, shooting configurations, ease of operation, the prints on the wall, whether or not you like how it feels in your hand…I’m not going to say it again. You get the picture.