Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Sony Alpha camera system is built around the Konica Minolta AF Mount, or A-Mount. Sony bought the mount and KM’s photography assets in 2006, when KM announced its withdrawal from the DSLR business.
To date, Sony has produced sixteen camera bodies, two of which are full frame with the rest being crop-frame bodies with APS-C size sensors. All bodies incorporate internal image stabilization, “Steady Shot INSIDE (SSI)”, thus all lenses attached to the Alpha bodies benefit from image stabilization. This applies to current and discontinued Sony lenses, Carl Zeiss Alpha lenses, Minolta AF film and digital lenses, 3rd party lenses, and even modified film-era manual focus lenses.
The Sony Alpha series is compatible with the numerous Minolta Maxxum A-mount lenses dating back to 1985 (96 lenses and 6 teleconverters). In addition, there are new Sony lenses, six of which have Carl Zeiss optical designs.
Sony currently offers a wide range of camera bodies, made up of two entry-level bodies, two mid level enthusiast bodies, and two full frame semi-pro/professional bodies.
All cameras, except the (semi) professional bodies, feature 23.5 × 17.5mm APS-C sized sensors. This size sensor offers an imaging area between 26 and 7 times larger than the sensors in common point and shoot cameras. These “crop bodies” have a crop factor of 1.5x, meaning that lenses attached will have a field of view equivalent to a lens of 1.5 times that focal length mounted on a full frame body. Thus, a 50mm lens mounted on a crop body will have a field of view equivalent to a 75mm lens mounted on a full frame body.
This gives a benefit to sports and wildlife shooters, who get a boost to the telephoto end of their lenses, but is a disadvantage for landscape shooters and other users of wide angle lenses, as their lenses lose some of their “wideness”.
APS-C DSLR Camera Bodies
Sony Alpha A290, 18-55mm kit, (compare prices), (June 2010), – 14.2 MP CMOS sensor, 2.5 FPS continuous drive, 9 point center cross AF system with 40 segment metering, ISO 200 to 3200, HDMI port, Eye-Start AF with 95% viewfinder coverage, dual Memory Stick and SD slots, 2.7" LCD, built in flash
Sony Alpha A330, 18-55 and 55-200 kit, (compare prices), (May 2009), – 10.2 MP CCD sensor, 2.5 FPS continuous drive, 9 point center cross AF system with 40 segment metering, ISO 200 to 3200, HDMI port, Eye-Start AF with 95% viewfinder coverage, dual Memory Stick and SD slots, 2.7" LCD with Quick AF Live View, built in flash; also features a different body style than the rest of the Alpha line.
Sony Alpha A390, 18-55mm kit, (compare prices), (June 2010), – 14.2 MP CMOS sensor, 2.5 FPS continuous drive, 9 point center cross AF system with 40 segment metering, ISO 200 to 3200, HDMI port, Eye-Start AF with 95% viewfinder coverage, dual Memory Stick and SD slots, 2.7" LCD with Quick AF Live View, built in flash
Sony Alpha A580, (compare prices), (Aug. 2010), – 16.2 MP CMOS sensor, up to 7 FPS continuous drive, 15 point center cross AF system with 1200 segment metering, ISO 200 to 12800, HDMI port, Eye-Start AF with 95% viewfinder coverage, dual Memory Stick and SD Slots, 3" 921k dot Xtra Fine LCD screen with Quick AF Live View, main sensor live view, manual focus check live view with 7 and 14x magnification, built in flash, and dual noise processing systems for clean images even in low light. Capable of 1080/60i HD video
Full Frame DSLR Camera Bodies
Sony Alpha A850, (compare prices) (review), (Aug. 2009), 24.6 MP full frame CMOS sensor with the ability to capture APS-C frames, 3 FPS continuous drive, 19 point center cross AF system with 40 segment metering, AF micro adjustment and extra f/2.8 sensor for fast lenses, ISO 100 to 6400, Eye Start AF with 98% viewfinder coverage, weather sealing, dual compact flash and SD card slots, 3.0" 921k dot Xtra Fine LCD, 1/8000 top shutter speed with shutter rated to 100,000+ cycles, mirror lock up, magnesium alloy body with dual BIONZ processors and dual noise reduction systems for clean images even in low light
Sony Alpha A900, (compare prices) (review), (Sept. 2008), 24.6 MP full frame CMOS sensor with the ability to capture APS-C frames, 5 FPS continuous drive, 19 point center cross AF system with 40 segment metering, AF micro adjustment and extra f/2.8 sensor for fast lenses, ISO 100 to 6400, Eye Start AF with 100% viewfinder coverage, weather sealing, dual compact flash and SD card slots, 3.0" 921k dot Xtra Fine LCD, 1/8000 top shutter speed with shutter rated to 100,000+ cycles, mirror lock up, magnesium alloy body with dual BIONZ processors and dual noise reduction systems for clean images even in low light
Sony DSLT Bodies
The SLT (single lens, translucent) cameras are a re-design of old Canon tech used in the 1960s. These Canon film cameras used a fixed, translucent mirror, a Pellix Mirror, to overcome some of the perceived limitations of the SLR design. Those cameras failed to generate much interest, and the SLR design continued to be the pinnacle of 35mm photography.
In 2010, Sony has revamped the design to overcome the limitations of recording video in a DSLR body. By using a fixed, translucent mirror, the DSLT bodies are able to provide continuous, full time phase detect AF during video and still shooting, while DSLR bodies only provide manual focus or slow contrast detect autofocus during video. The elimination of a moving reflex mirror also allows the drive speed to be increased to 6 frames per second with autofocus/exposure, or up to 10 frames per second without. The major drawback of such a design is that it doesn’t work with an optical viewfinder (OVF). The change in the light path requires an electronic viewfinder (EVF), though the EVFs in the A55 and A33 are much improved over “normal” camera EVFs. They also provide a view similar in size to the A900’s OVF. Additionally, because there is still a mirror present in the body, the mount can be left unchanged, so the A33 and 55 are fully compatible with Alpha lenses.
APS-C Sony DSLT Bodies
Sony SLT-A33, (compare prices) (review), (Aug. 2010), Sony Alpha 33 – $649 (body only) – 14.2 MP APS-C CMOS sensor, 7 FPS continuous drive, 15 point AF system with 3 cross sensors and 1200 zone evaluative metering. ISO 200 to 25,600, EVF with 1.1x magnification and 100% frame coverage, dual memory stick and SD slots, 921k dot 3" TruBlack articulated LCD screen. Phase detection AF full time during still and 1080/60i video shooting.
Sony SLT-A55, (compare prices) (review), (Aug. 2010), Sony Alpha 55 – $749 (body only) – 16.2 MP APS-C CMOS sensor, 10 FPS continuous drive, 15 point AF system with 3 cross sensors and 1200 zone evaluative metering. ISO 200 to 25,600, EVF with 1.1x magnification and 100% frame coverage, dual memory stick and SD slots, 921k dot 3" TruBlack articulated LCD screen. Phase detection AF full time during still and 1080i/60i video shooting. Also includes in-body GPS for geo-tagging.
In 2005, Sony and Konica Minolta agreed to co-develop DSLR cameras, combining features such as Sony’s CCD and CMOS sensors and Lithium batteries and Konica Minolta’s AF, metering and anti-shake system. In 2006, Konica Minolta withdrew from the consumer imaging business and transferred their lens mount and other technology to Sony. Sony has
been slowly adding bodies and lenses to the Alpha system, an assortment of accessories.
If you aren’t confused enough by the combined brand names of Sony, Konica, Minolta, you’ll be pleased to learn that Sony has collaborated with Carl Zeiss on the design on some of its lenses and has decided to brand these with names such as “Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar T*”.
The Sony Alpha system is compatible with a large range of lenses. Sony itself offers a total of 30 lenses, covering focal lengths from 16-500mm, and two teleconverters. Additionally Sigma, Tamron, and recently Tokina, all produce lenses in A-mount for use on Alpha cameras.
To enhance your search for the perfect lenses for your camera gear bag, check out our guide on Building a Lens Kit.
G – Sony’s “Gold” series of lenses. These are top-shelf professional quality lenses offering excellent image and build quality with extra features for additional creative control.
ZA – Zeiss Alpha lenses. These lenses use Carl Zeiss optical formulas and coatings, and are manufactured by Sony to Carl Zeiss specification. These, like the G lenses, are for pro photographers seeking the absolute best in image and build quality. They are also the only AF capable CZ lenses in the photography business.
SSM – Super Sonic Motor. Lenses employing SSM feature quiet, fast, smooth, and accurate focusing. All of Sony’s SSM lenses also feature direct manual focus override, allowing a photographer to fine-tune focusing without using the AF/MF switch by simply turning the focus ring.
SAM – Smooth Autofocus Motor. Lenses using a SAM focusing system feature smooth and accurate focusing. SAM is not equivalent to SSM, and does not have a clutch in the focus ring to enable DMF override.
DT – Digital Technology. DT lenses only produce an image circle large enough to cover an APS-C size sensor. They are, however, compatible with the A900 and 850. These cameras will simply crop the frame to create an 11 MP APS-C sized image.
ED – Extra Low Dispersion. Lenses using this glass are better corrected for chromatic aberration than lenses using regular optical glass. Never printed on the lens barrel
Super ED – Super Extra Low Dispersion. Similar to ED glass, but even better at correcting aberrations. Never printed on the lens barrel.
D – Distance Encoder. Lenses with distance encoders are compatible with Advanced Distance Integration (ADI) flashes.
T* – T-star coating. Used on Carl Zeiss lenses, T* is a special optical coating developed by Carl Zeiss that helps prevent flare and ghosting, and increases image contrast.
STF – Smooth Transition Focus. Used for lenses featuring special apodization elements.
IF – Internal Focus. Tthe lens does not change physical length as you focus on subjects that are closer or farther away.
MD – Minolta manual focus lenses. They don’t work on the modern Sony bodies.
Wide Angle Zoom Lenses
Wide angle zooms are the go-to tool for photographing dramatic landscapes and creative perspectives. Wide angle zooms generally cover a range from 8mm to 35mm.
Sony 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6 DT, (compare prices), Dramatically wide, but quite expensive for an APS-C only, in body focus motor driven lens with a maximum aperture of only f/4.5. (35mm equivalent: 16.5-27mm)
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA SSM Vario-Sonnar T Carl Zeiss, (compare prices), Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-35 f/2.8 ZA SSM – $1899 – A full frame lens offering ultra wide views on the A900 or 850. Coupled with Zeiss image and build quality, a smooth SSM motor, and a bright, fast aperture of f/2.8, the only downside of this lens is it’s price tag. (35mm equivalent: 24-42.5mm)
Wide Angle Prime Lenses
Wide angle primes provide better image quality than their zoom counterparts (as do most primes), with the usually added bonus of a faster aperture than a zoom.
Sony 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye, (compare prices), Offers unique, distorted perspective when used on full frame, but a less fishy 24mm view on APS-C. Features a set of 4 internal filters to choose from. (35mm equivalent: 24mm)
Sony 20mm f/2.8, (compare prices), Gives a wide view on full frame, but a less impressive view on APS-C. Just a standard fast aperture wide angle lens. (35mm equivalent: 25mm)
Sony Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 24mm f/2 SSM, (compare prices), Provides professional, wide angle image quality in a (relatively) compact package. This solid metal lens is the fastest wide angle prime in the Sony line-up, with a whole stop of light gathering power over the other lenses in this range (35mm equivalent: 36mm)
Sony 28mm f/2.8, (compare prices), Gives full frame photographers a cheap prime for wide angle work, and provides a field of view similar to that of the human eye for users of APS-C. (35mm equivalent: 42mm)
Wide to Telephoto Zoom Lenses
Wide to telephoto lenses are what most photographers call “walk-around lenses” and the category also includes the standard kit lenses as well. They feature zoom ranges that cover standard wide angle to moderate or mid-telephoto. Generally they’re wide enough to capture landscapes or interiors and long enough to do some portrait work or to zoom in tight on a (not-too-distant) subject. Although covering wide ranges, which allows them to be used in many photographic situations, the main weakness of these lenses is that the cheaper ones have a very small maximum aperture, e.g., f/4 or f/5.6, and can only be used in bright light, on a tripod, or with an on-camera flash.
Sony 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 DT Carl Zeiss, (compare prices) (review), Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-80 f/3.5-4.5 DT ZA [D] – $749 – Brings CZ quality to APS-C bodies. Provides excellent image quality while compromising on aperture and frame coverage to create a CZ lens for those on a “budget”. (35mm equivalent: 24-120mm)
Sony 16-105mm f3.5-5.6 DT, (compare prices), An upgraded kit lens offering, formerly included with the A700. This lens does provide better than average image quality, but only features the “standard” aperture values for it’s zoom range. (35mm equivalent: 24-157.5mm)
Sony 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 DT SAM, (compare prices), The 2nd generation standard kit lens, replacing the Sony 18-70 f/3.5-5.6 DT. Features a smooth autofocus motor and better optics for higher image quality than it’s predecessor. (35mm equivalent: 27-72.5)
Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DT, (compare prices), Sony’s original travel-do-it-all lens, zooms from wide to telephoto, but compromises on speed. It’s quite slow at 200mm with an aperture of only f/6.3. It should perform well outside in good light, and is especially convenient for those wanting to travel light or avoid lens changes. (35mm equivalent: 27-300mm)
Sony 18-250 f/3.5-6.3 DT, (compare prices), Essentially the same as the above lens, but with an extra 50mm on the long end. It should be noted that super-zoom DSLR lenses tend to not perform as well as lenses with less ambitious zoom ranges. (35mm equivalent: 27-375mm)
Sony 28-75 f/2.8 SAM, (compare prices), The cheaper alternative to the CZ 24-70, this lens loses a bit of length on the wide end but gains it back on the telephoto side. Features a SAM motor for smooth AF. The focus ring on this lens, strangely, rotates in the “wrong” direction relative to other Sony lenses. (35mm equivalent: 42-112.5mm)
Normal lenses are those that offer a field of view similar to the human eye. For full frame, this corresponds to a focal length of about 50mm, and for APS-C, about 35mm. These lenses can be quite versatile and see use in street photography and portraiture. They’re also used by photographers who want to travel light, or those who enjoy low light photography. Standard primes, and primes in general, offer much faster apertures than zoom lenses, allowing in much more light, making them useful for available light photography. It may be possible to take a photo with a normal lens in light only 1/8th or 1/16th as bright as would be required for the same photo with a consumer-priced zoom lens. Also, the viewfinder will be brighter and therefore easier to use in dim light, due to the fact that the large maximum aperture stays open for viewing and stops down to whatever aperture you have set just before taking the picture.
Sony 35mm f/1.4G, (compare prices) (review), A super-fast professional G-series prime. When used on full frame, it gives a perfect view for street photography. (35mm equivalent: 42.5mm)
Sony 35 f/1.8 DT SAM, (compare prices), Another fast prime, this lens, part of Sony’s “Easy Choice” line, is designed to deliver high image quality for photographers on a budget. It’s APS-C only. (35mm equivalent: 42.5mm)
Sony 50mm f/1.4, (compare prices), A design brought in from Minolta, Sony’s fast 50 is great for low light and for casual portraiture, especially on APS-C. (35mm equivalent: 75mm)
Sony 50 f/1.8 DT SAM, (compare prices), The cheapest lens in the Sony line up, and part of the “Easy Choice” series. This, like the 35/1.8, features high image quality for a low cost. (35mm equivalent: 75mm)
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
Telephoto zooms are some of the most important lenses in a photographer’s kit, as it gives them the “reach” they need to photograph distant or unreachable subjects. Tele zooms are also useful for portraiture, as they are able to isolate a subject from their background, either through the use of a fast aperture (on the more expensive lenses) or simply by virtue of their long focal lengths and careful composition.
Sony 55-200 f/4-5.6 DT SAM, (compare prices), A surprisingly sharp telephoto option for those on a budget. It pairs nicely with the 18-55/3.5-5.6 kit lens, features a smooth AF motor, but does suffer from a slow maximum aperture. (35mm equivalent: 82.5-300mm)
Sony 70-200 f/2.8 G SSM, (compare prices), The “ultimate” telephoto zoom. This lens features fully internal focusing and zooming, so the length never changes. It also includes SSM for silent, fast, accurate focusing, and a fast, constant f/2.8 aperture. Part of Sony’s G line, this lens includes ED glass in addition to top grade build and image quality. (35mm equivalent: 105-300mm)
Sony 70-300 f/4-5.6 G SSM, (compare prices), Another G lens, this lens is the most affordable of the G series. It does compromise on build quality to get the price below $1000, with more polycarbonate than it’s brethren. It doesn’t, however, compromise on image quality, and like the other G tele zooms, includes SSM for fast and precise AF. (35mm equivalent: 105-450mm)
Sony 70-400 f/4-5.6 G SSM, (compare prices), What this lens lacks in speed it makes up for in range. The 70-400 features the longest zoom range of any of the Sony tele zooms. As a G lens, it features top-notch build and image quality and also includes SSM. (35mm equivalent: 105-600mm)
Telephoto primes are used when a photographer needs long reach and uncompromising image quality, with a large maximum aperture and high magnification of the subject. All of Sony’s telephoto primes feature large, fast apertures, perfect for portraiture or ambient light photography. When comparing a telephoto prime to a normal-to-telephoto zoom, note the small maximum aperture on the long end of the zoom. Keep in mind that on a small sensor, the effective focal length of a telephoto prime is multiplied by 1.5.
Sony 85mm f/1.4 ZA Carl Zeiss Planar T*, (compare prices), An ultrafast portrait lens from Carl Zeiss, the 85/1.4 features a large aperture for isolating subjects or low light photography. It also is coated in CZ’s special T* coating, for increasing contrast and image quality while reducing flare and ghosting. (35mm equivalent: 127.5mm)
Sony 85 f/2.8 DT SAM, (compare prices), A smaller and cheaper prime than the CZ 85/1.4, this lens features a smooth autofocus motor and an f/2.8 aperture. While not as fast as the CZ, as part of Sony’s Easy Choice line, it’s a fraction of the cost. Sized for APS-C sensors. (35mm equivalent: 127.5mm)
Sony 135mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss, (compare prices), Another Carl Zeiss lens sure to see a lot of use as a portrait prime. It, like it’s little brother (the 85/1.4), features a super fast aperture, CZ’s T* coating, and impeccable image and build quality. (35mm equivalent: 202.5mm)
Sony 300 f/2.8 G SSM, (compare prices), Sony’s largest and most expensive lens, the 300/2.8 is aimed squarely at professionals and sports photographers. It features an aluminum build, a large, bright aperture of f/2.8, SSM, and is part of the G series of lenses, meaning it provides uncompromising image quality. It also includes a wide range of buttons and functions on the lens barrel. (35mm equivalent: 450mm)
A teleconverter provides additional magnification, but the overall amount of light gathered by the lens remains the same. Thus, you lose one f-stop of light with the 1.4x converter and two f-stops with the 2x converter. The viewfinder will be dimmer and the camera will have a tougher time autofocusing. To get autofocus with a 1.4x teleconverter, you need a lens f/4 or faster. To get autofocus with a 2x, you need a lens f/2.8 or faster. The final aperture after the teleconverter has been added needs to be f/5.6 or faster.
Macro lenses are used to capture very small details. All of the lenses in the Sony system focus to 1:1, meaning they can capture an image that is the same size as the sensor in the camera body and reproduce it at life size. (1mm in the physical world = 1 mm on the sensor surface) This results in very high magnification and the ability to sharply capture small and/or intricate detail. Most macro lenses can be used for ordinary photographic projects as well, i.e., they will focus out to infinity if desired.
Sony 30 f/2.8 DT SAM macro, (compare prices), This macro doesn’t give much working room at 1:1, but can double as a wide angle fast prime. Features a SAM motor and is designed for Sony’s APS-C bodies. Requires an adapter ring to mate with the Sony Ring Light. (35mm equivalent: 45mm)
Sony 50mm f/2.8 Macro, (compare prices), Focuses down to 1:1 and gives more working room than the 30/2.8. Also includes a focus limiter for faster focus lock. (35mm equivalent: 75mm)
Sony 100 f/2.8 macro, (compare prices), Focuses down to 1:1 and gives more working room than the 30/2.8 or the 50/2.8. It too includes a focus limiter for faster acquisition of focus. (35mm equivalent: 150mm)
The Sony system features two unique lenses that are currently the only lenses of their kind offered by any manufacturer.
Sony 500 f/8 AF Reflex (discontinued but still available from some retailers), The 500/8 Reflex is a mirror lens. It uses reflective mirrors in the optical path to fold the light and drastically reduce the size and weight for a 500mm lens. The mirror design has the added benefit of completely eliminating chromatic aberration, but at the cost of donut shaped bokeh (out of focus highlights), and a fixed aperture of f/8, making it useful only in bright light shooting. While it is a specialized lens, it is the only autofocus mirror lens in the world, making it unique to the Sony system. (35mm equivalent: 750mm)
Sony 135 f/2.8 [T4.5] STF, (compare prices), The STF is a specialized, manual focus only lens for those wanting the absolute best in bokeh quality. It uses a special element to change the way light is collected at the edge of the frame, rendering transitions between in and out of focus smoothly and cleanly. (35mm equivalent: 202.5mm)
The Sony flash system provides an alternative to the on-camera flashes on most camera bodies. The on-camera flash is low-powered and blasts your subjects with harsh white light that gives the “deer in headlights” look. While it can be useful for filling shadows outdoors in bright light, any extensive use of flash is best served by one of the dedicated shoe flashes below.
Note: there are no specific names for individual flashes, only model numbers (i.e. HVL-F42AM). As a result, they’re normally referred to by the FXX (where X is a number) portion of their model number.
Sony HVL-F20AM Flash, (compare prices), This little flash has a guide number of 20 @ ISO 100. What it lacks in advanced control it makes up for in its small size and ability to act as a wireless flash controller for the A850 and A900, neither of which have built in flashes. It does have the ability to do bounce flash, and comes with a built in wide-angle diffuser panel.
Sony HVL-F42AM Flash, (compare prices), This flash is Sony’s mid level model, featuring a guide number of 42 @ ISO 100. It comes with much more advanced control, including wireless capability, manual control, high speed sync (HSS) and covers a zoom range of 28-105mm, plus wide angle with a built in, pull-out diffuser panel. Capable of up to 90 degrees tilt and 180 degrees swivel.
Sony HVL-F58AM Flash, (compare prices), Sony’s flagship model, featuring a guide number of 58 @ ISO 100. Even more advanced than the F42, this flash has wireless capability, a modeling light, full manual control, HSS, ratio control, and a large LCD panel for quick, intuitive adjustments. Tilts up from -10 degrees all the way back to 150 degrees, and comes with a unique swivel system that allows the flash head to provide horizontal light output even when the camera body is held in the portrait orientation. Covers a range of 24-105mm, down to 16mm with the slide out wide-angle diffuser, and also has a built in bounce card for throwing a little light into the eyes of portrait subjects.
Sony HVL-RLAM Macro Ring Flash, (compare prices), A ring of LED lights for macro and shadowless photography. The LEDs have two brightness levels, and each half of the ring can be shut off independently, for shadow control. Comes with a hot shoe adapter and lens adapters for 49/55mm filter threads.