Night photographer Lance Keimig takes you on a journey to the Aurora Borealis and helps you from start to finish, beginning with preparation for cold, Icelandic weather and finishing up with exposure...
The Sony Alpha A700 is Sony's mid-level
digital SLR, competing in the same price class as
the Canon EOS 40D, the Pentax K20D and the Nikon D200/300. In the
Sony line (formally the Konica/Minolta line) of DSLRs the Alpha A700
is probably closest to an evolution of the Minolta 7D.
It was first released in September 2007.
The Sony Alpha A700 is compatible with all A-mount Minolta SLR and
DSLR autofocus lenses and accessories. Note that the Sony A700 cannot
accept Minolta MD-mount manual focus lenses.
Though it doesn't directly address Sony cameras, newcomers to the
world of DSLRs might want to start with the photo.net article "Building
a DSLR System".
The Sony A700 is
available in various packages from amazon.com:
Unlike its direct competitors, the Sony A700 lacks a dedicated LCD
for displaying camera settings. The large rear LCD is used for both
image and data display. This results in a simpler user interface
because there is only one place on the camera to look for
information. However, the rear LCD can be quite difficult to see in bright
sunlight, just the opposite of the typical top mounted B&W reflection type
LCD displays. Personally I'd rather have a top LCD with the option of
also displaying capturing information on the rear LCD, as is possible
with the Canon EOS 40D.
There is just one main control dial on the left side of the top of
the camera and it controls the operating modes: Program, Aperture
priority, Shutter priority and Manual plus multiple scene modes
(Auto/Green, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset and Night
Portrait). On the right side of the top are dedicated buttons for
setting exposure compensation, white balance, ISO and drive mode.
The A700 has a conventional shutter release layout with
the main control dial being a vertically mounted wheel just in front
of the shutter release button used to set parameters such as shutter
speed and aperture. There's a second control dial, which is
horizontally mounted at the top right of the rear of the camera. This
serves essentially the same function as the Canon EOS rear QCD (quick
control dial), allowing the main control wheel to be adjusted using
the index finger and the secondary control wheel to be adjusted with
On the back of the camera is the 3" LCD used for both image
and data display. As you can see from the above image, the orientation
of the display text changes when the camera is turned from landscape to
portrait mode. To the right of the LCD is the main four-way
controller with a center button, which can be used to select menu
options or navigate within an image. At the bottom right is the switch
to select "Super SteadyShot" mode, Sony's sensor-based image
stabilizer. To the left of the LCD are the controls for displaying the
menu, selecting which data are displayed, erasing images and recalling
stored images. There are also dedicated buttons for exposure
compensation (+/-) and Auto Exposure Lock (AEL).
The LCD itself provides a high quality image. It has 922,000
pixels, which corresponds to 640x480 resolution with RGB pixels at
each location. This is a similar specification to the LCD found on
the Nikon D300 (review), but provides a
better and more detailed image than the 230,000 pixel LCD of the
Canon EOS 40D (review).
In addition to the pre-defined function buttons there is also
a "C" (custom) button, which can be assigned to one of many functions
such as DOF preview, AF/MF selection, image quality, ISO setting,
drive mode, AF lock, etc.
Like the Minolta 7D, on which I'm sure the Alpha
700 is based, the A700 uses switches for functions which many other
cameras control via buttons and menus. The metering pattern is set
using a 3-way switch on the back of the camera to select among spot
metering, center-weighted metering and multi-segment metering. AF mode
can be set by a 4-way switch on the front of the camera just below the
lens. The options there are "S" - single (one shot) focus, "A" - Auto
(switches from one shot to continuous, depending on subject movement),
"C" - continuous (tracking) and "M" - manual focus. Whether you prefer
buttons or switches is a personal choice. I'm sure you can get
used to either approach.
Note: All timing measurements were made using a Sony 300x CF
card. The Sony Alpha A700 takes about 1 second to "boot
up". After that the camera is pretty responsive and it wakes up from
"sleep" mode almost instantly. After a shot is taken, the image
appears on the LCD screen in about 1 second.
In continuous drive mode with the shutter speed set to 1/500s, ISO set
to 200 and saving images as Large/Fine JPEGs, I measured a burst rate
of 4.92 frames/sec. I couldn't fill the buffer to the point where the
camera slowed down, and I gave up after 200 frames! Saving the images
in RAW mode the burst speed was 4.9 frames/sec for 18 frames, then the
rate slowed to 2.1 frames/sec
These are pretty impressive numbers, especially if you're
photographing JPEGs. As long as you have a fast memory card you really
don't have to worry about filling the buffer. When capturing RAW you
can fill the buffer after about 18 images, but even then the A700 will
continue at over 2 fps for as long as you hold the shutter release
The Sony A700 uses 11 autofocus zones. The center zone has a cross-type
sensor, responsive to both vertical and horizontal detail, while the
remaining 10 zones are line-type sensors, which respond to detail only
in one orientation. A sensor detects when an eye is placed against the
viewfinder and starts auto focus. With this function enabled, by the
time you get the camera to your eye, the AF system may already have
acquired focus. With eye-start focus off, AF is initiated with a halfway
press of the shutter release.
Auto focus seemed fast and positive, with very little focus hunting
in good light. I did see some problems getting focus in low light
using the Sony 70-300/3.5-5.6 lens in low light where there would be
occasional focus uncertainty before final lock, but that may be more
due to the lens than the camera.
Auto white balance (WB) performed well in outdoor lighting, but like
most other DSLRs didn't so so well indoors under tungsten and
fluorescent lighting where results were quite warm. Using tungsten
and fluorescent settings improved matters, but images were still
slightly warm. As usual, if you want accurate color balance, the best
option is to manually select the color temperature or use the custom
white balance feature.
The WB modes available are: Auto, Daylight, Shade,
Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent,
Flash, Color temperature (2500 K to 9900 K) and Custom.
The viewfinder is
quite bright and uses a glass pentaprism (some cheaper cameras use a
pentamirror system). Viewfinder magnification is 0.9x and viewfinder
coverage is 95 percent, which is about average for this class of
DSLR. There is a -3 to +1 dioptric adjustment.
The in-viewfinder LCD display is presented just below the image. It
shows the usual information: flash exposure compensation, flash mode and
readiness, focus confirmation, shutter speed and aperture, exposure
compensation and/or metering, and the number of images that can be
stored in the camera's buffer memory. In addition, the
display shows an indication of camera shake and the ability
of the anti-shake system to compensate for it via a multi-bar graph
(rather like the signal strength indicator on a cell phone).
The Sony A700 has built-in "Super SteadyShot" image
stabilization. Sensors in the camera detect motion and move the
digital imaging CMOS sensor so as to compensate. This method of
stabilization was pioneered by Minolta in the Maxxum 7D and a similar
in-body stabilization scheme is used by both Pentax and Olympus.
There is some debate about the relative effectiveness of sensor-based
stabilization vs. Nikon and Canon's lens-based stabilization. To get
some idea of their relative performance, I tested the Sony A700 with a
70-300mm zoom set to 300mm and a Canon EOS 40D with an EF 70-300 IS lens
also set to 300mm. I obtained a number of images with each camera at
shutter speeds from 1/500s to 1/25s. The standard rule of thumb is that
a photographer should be able to handhold a 300mm lens on these
cameras at shutter speeds of 1/500s and faster and get sharp
images. At lower speeds your chance of sharp images should drop
significantly. Photographing at 1/250s is 1 stop slower, 1/125s is 2
stops slower, 1/60s is 3 stops slower and 1/30s is 4 stops slower.
The results showed that the effectiveness of the Sony Super SteadyShot
system seemed pretty similar to that of the Canon lens-based
stabilization system. Giving numerical results is difficult because
photographs can range anywhere from sharp to blurred - and all degrees
of sharpness in between. At 300mm, most of the images taken at 1/160s
were acceptably sharp. At 1/80s about 40% were acceptably
sharp. That's about 2-2.5 stops of stabilization. With the Canon lens
at 300mm the probability of sharp images at 1/80s was a little higher
and I'd estimate the stabilization at maybe 2.5-3 stops.
Whatever the relative merits of the two stabilization systems, it's
clear that the body-based Sony Super SteadyShot has the advantage of
stabilizing all lenses mounted on the A700 body. Additionally
you only pay for stabilization once because it is built into the
body. Also, if you buy a new body with an improved stabilization
system, the improved stabilization is realized with every lens. If a
new lens stabilization system is developed, you have to replace all
your lenses to take advantage of it, which is a much more expensive
and less attractive proposition.
Remember that any image stabilization system, whether based on the
lens or the camera body, stabilizes camera motion not subject motion.
If your subject is moving, e.g., at a sporting event, you need a fast
lens (f/1.4, f/2, or f/2.8) and/or a high ISO setting in order to keep
the exposure time short enough that the image isn't blurred by subject
Sensor and Resolution
The Sony Alpha A700 has a 12MP sensor, 2MP more than that used in
the Canon EOS 40D and the Nikon D80. Does this significantly increase
resolution (and hence sharpness)? Well, in theory 20% more pixels
means that the linear resolution should increase by about 10%. This
should be measurable, but not really noticeable except if printing
very large images.
Above are 100% crops from
the center of a Sony Alpha A700 12MP image and a Canon EOS 40D 10MP
image. They were taken with different lenses, but both were
photographed at 100mm and f8, which is a setting that should be pretty
sharp with any lens. At this scale, these crops represent a section
from a 24x36" when viewed on a typical 17" monitor at a screen
resolution of 1280x1024. As you can see, the A700 crop has slightly
better resolution of the "2.5" line set, but the difference between
the images is small.
ISO Settings and Noise Levels
The Sony A700 uses a 12MP CMOS sensor with an ISO range from
100 to 6400. Unlike some of its competitors, the Alpha A700
does not have an ISO display in the viewfinder, something I find
quite useful on my EOS 40D. The Pentax K20D, Nikon D200/D300 and EOS
40D all have viewfinder display of ISO setting, though the Nikon D80
Noise levels are pretty well controlled up to ISO 400,
with noise becoming more visible at higher ISO settings. The images
below are 100 percent crops from images captured at ISO settings from
100 to 6400 with the Sony A700 and from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 with the
Canon EOS 40D.
As you can see, the noise level of the Sony A700 looks a little
smoother than that of the EOS 40D, but that appears to be due to
somewhat more aggressive noise reduction. In other tests, the EOS 40D
images tended to hold onto more detail at ISO 3200 at the expense of
somewhat more visible noise. This test (a gray card at 100 percent
cropping) is designed to reveal noise. In a typical image printed at
8x12, both cameras would be fine up to ISO 800, with noise creeping in
at higher ISO settings.
When ISO is set to 1600 or higher, noise reduction is
automatically applied. The default setting for high ISO noise
reduction is "normal", but "low" and "high" settings can be used. In
practice there isn't very much difference between the three
settings. The A700 seems to apply noise reduction to RAW files, which
is in contrast to most other DSLRs. This may be due to the sensor
design, which includes hardware noise reduction and A/D conversion on
the digital sensor chip itself, rather than having those functions
applied in separate steps.
Dynamic Range Optimization
Dynamic range optimization (DRO) is designed to recover details in
dark or bright areas of the image. The Alpha A700 has three DRO
modes: Standard mode, Advanced mode and Advanced Bracketing mode.
Standard mode attempts to improve shadow detail using standard gamma
curves. In Advanced mode you can select auto or one of 5 manual DRO
correction levels and in Advanced Bracketing mode, you can
automatically take three photos at different DRO levels with a single
DRO does seem to work, though the Advanced manual modes seem a lot
more effective at raising the level of dark shadow areas than either
the standard or advanced auto modes. Bringing up the shadow
levels tends to increase shadow noise, but that's often a
reasonable trade-off. DRO does not affect RAW files, so presumably its
a software function which changes the shape of the tone curve.
You can also vary the DRO level when converting RAW files, which also
suggests that it's done entirely in software.
Maximum shutter speed for syncing with flash is 1/250s or 1/200s
with Super SteadyShot enabled. The built-in flash, which must be
manually raised and lowered, has a useful range of about 10 ft. (guide
number of 12 in meters at ISO 100; higher ISO settings result in
longer flash range). The built-in flash has to be manually raised.
The flash covers the field of view of a 16mm lens (equivalent to that
of a 24mm lens on a full frame camera).
There are seven flash modes: Automatic, Fill, Red-eye reduction, Rear
sync, Wireless, High-speed sync, and Slow sync. In wireless mode the
built-in flash sends a series of optical pulses to an external flash
such as the Sony HVL-F56AM Flash, (compare prices). The external flash
first fires a metering pre-flash, which the camera uses to set
exposure. The built-in flash then sends a second series of pulses,
which tell the external flash how much power to use. Contrast this
with the Canon system, which requires a hot shoe flash such as the
580EX II in order to fire and control a wireless slave such as the
430EX. Using the built-in flash as a wireless flash controller is
a simpler and less expensive solution.
The A700 has a card slot for Type I or II Compact Flash (CF)
memory cards and for Memory Stick Duo cards. You can store images on
either type of card, but you cannot write to both cards
simultaneously. The Memory Stick card format was developed by Sony
about 10 years ago (1998) but it hasn't really caught on as a major
player in the flash memory market. The capability to use Memory Sticks
may be useful to those upgrading from earlier Sony cameras who already
have a supply of Memory Stick cards, but I think that most users will
chose the more widely available, less expensive and higher performance
Compact Flash memory.
The A700 uses a NP-FM500H Li-Ion rechargeable battery with
a rated capacity of 1650 mAh. Sony specifications indicate that you
should get around 650 captures on a single charge in average use. A
battery charger is included with the camera and an optional AC adapter
A vertical grip, the VG-C70M, is available for the Sony Alpha
A700. As well as offering a shutter release convenient for vertical
operation, the VG-C70M has two control dials, function buttons and can
accept two battery packs for extended capture time.
The A700 is constructed of a high strength aluminum chassis with a
magnesium alloy body shell and a plastic covering. The grip section of
the body has a textured rubber covering to make it a little easier to
The control ergonomics are good and it's possible (though perhaps
not advisable) to operate most of the more commonly used camera
The A700 is slightly larger (141.7x104.8x79.7mm vs. 133x95x71mm)
and slightly heavier (768g vs. 638g inc. battery) than the A100, but
it should be much more durable.
Like all Sony DSLRs, the Alpha A700 is compatible with all Minolta
autofocus lenses. but it is not compatible with any earlier Minolta MD
mount (manual focus) lenses.
Adapters are available, which allow the mounting of Minolta MD
lenses on the Sony A700, but they contain optics (to enable infinity
focus) which increase the focal length slightly, reduce the maximum
aperture slightly, and almost certainly lower the image quality. When
using such adapters manual focus must be used and the lens must be
manually stopped down.
Key A700 Features
12MP CMOS sensor, APS-C format (23.6 x 15.8 mm)
ISO range 100-6400
3" LCD monitor, 920,000 pixels (640 x 480 x 3 (RGB))
5 fps continuous burst speed
No buffer limitation with fast CF card and Large/fine JPEGs
Anti-dust system to shake dust off sensor
40 segment metering system
Image Stabilization in body "Super SteadyShot"
Eye Start AF
11 AF zones, 1 cross type, 10 linear type.
Shutter speeds from 30s to 1/8000s
Flash sync 1/250s (1/200s with Super SteadyShot on)
95 percent viewfinder (0.9x)
Uses Compact Flash or Memory Stick PRO memory cards
Shutter speeds 30s to 1/8000s
Weight 768g (with battery)
Size - 5.6x4.1x3.1in (142x105x80mm)
A PDF copy of the User manual (and other A700 documentation) can
be downloaded directly from the Sony
The Sony Alpha A700 is competitive in terms of price, performance and
features with cameras such as the Canon EOS 40D, (compare prices) (review),
Pentax K20D, (compare prices) (review), and the Nikon D80, (compare prices) (review).
The Sony system of lenses and accessories is smaller than Pentax's and
much smaller than Canon's and Nikon's. The A700's main advantage over
similar priced bodies from Canon and Nikon is the built-in image
stabilization, though the Pentax K20D not only has body based
stabilization and extensive weatherproofing, but also has a 14MP
sensor, 2MP more than the Sony Alpha A700 and Nikon D300.
One feature that the Sony Alpha A700 lacks which is present on
most new DSLRs is a "LiveView" mode. The Canon EOS 40D, the Nikon
D300, and the Pentax K20D all have LiveView capability, though the
Nikon D80 doesn't.
For anyone with an investment in Minolta/Sony AF lenses, the Sony
Alpha A700 is a logical upgrade and currently Sony's most professional
and full featured DSLR. It's clearly a very capable camera offering
high image quality, fast operation and (in JPEG mode) the ability to
capture 5 fps bursts of hundreds of images when a fast CF card is
Those without a prior investment in lenses would need to carefully
weigh the various DSLRs systems offered by Nikon, Canon, Pentax and
Olympus to see which best meets their needs. With a maturing
technology, DSLRs at this level are all capable of yielding excellent
results. Each system offers some unique features or lenses and buyers
have to decide which factors are most important to them.
Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6,
set at 230mm, 1/640s, f/5.6, ISO 200, multi-segment metering.
Even though the edges of the images may get a little soft with this lens
at 230mm, in many situations (such as this one), the center of the image
is much more important than the edges (which will be out of focus anyway)
Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6, set at 160mm, f/5.6,
1/40s, ISO 400, multi-segment metering, manual exposure mode. Although
this decorative light fixture was photographed against a luminescent
window, the A700 did a great job with the colors, sharpness. I used
the AE Lock button to focus on the colored object before recomposing
Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6, set at 75mm, f/4.5,
1/40s, ISO 200, multi-segment metering, manual exposure mode. Although
handheld at 1/40s, the image stabilization helped me capture this. I
wanted the least amount of noise in this photo, hence the ISO setting
and a slower shutter speed.
Sony 70-300 f/4-5.6 G SSM, set at 75mm,
1/250s, f/5.6, ISO 400, multi-segment metering. At 75mm the image
sharpness is quite good across the frame.
Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO
640, multi-segment metering. The edges of the photo are out of focus,
but this is probably more due to the angle of view and how close I was
to the subject.
Sony 70-300 f/4-5.6 G SSM, set at 75mm,
1/100s, f/5.6, ISO 400, multi-segment metering. Though the sky is
bright and the foreground dull, the A700 has just avoided
overexposing the sky (average level around 252, where 255 is