Just by looking at it, you would never guess that Sony’s new Alpha A300 digital camera represents a huge technical breakthrough. To discover what it is, you need a tour of its innards. Keep hands and feet inside the tram at all times.
On an ordinary single lens reflex camera (those big black pro models), light enters from the lens and is split by a semi-transparent mirror. Half of the light goes to the eyepiece viewfinder, and the other half goes downward to the autofocus sensor.
When you press the shutter button, that mirror flips up out of the light’s path, revealing— aha!—a small rectangular image sensor, the computer chip that records the photo.
Already, you have learned enough to answer one of the great digital camera mysteries: Why must you hold these cameras up to your eye? Why can’t you frame a photo using an SLR’s back-panel screen, as you can on a little pocket camera?
Sony’s technical breakthrough on the A300, therefore, was this: “Duh! Put in another sensor!”
On this camera, turning on Live View sends light from that main mirror on to a second sensor, one that’s devoted solely to feeding the preview screen. The autofocus sensor works normally as you compose a shot, since the mirror never has to flip up.
Live View: The new Alpha A300 Sony camera
As a result, Live View is a completely different experience. The camera focuses quickly as you aim the lens, without ever blacking out the screen. When you press the shutter, the screen doesn’t go on-off-on, there’s no loud clacking, and there’s no baffling exhibition of mirror calisthenics inside the camera.
Now, serious photographers traditionally snort at the whole idea of composing shots on the screen. Only an eyepiece viewfinder shows the true scene as the camera sees it.
But when it works properly, Live View can contribute mightily to your photographic success—especially when the entire screen tilts up or down, as it does on the A300.
For example, you can now shoot a parade over the heads of the crowd in front of you. You can shoot pets and babies at their eye level without having to squat or kneel. And you get infinitely better photos of young or camera-shy subjects when you’re smiling and making eye contact than when you’re hiding your face behind a piece of Darth Vader equipment.
Finally, because the screen doesn’t black out while you’re shooting, the A300 is the first SLR that lets you track a moving subject on the screen, shooting all the way.
All state-of-the-art SLR features are present, including a system that shakes off any dust that may have drifted on to the sensor; a battery gauge with actual percentage numbers instead of four crude line segments; and an autofocus that begins to work the instant you hold the camera up to your eye, thanks to a proximity sensor.
Amazingly, Sony has finally quit trying to ram its proprietary, expensive Memory Stick cards down our throats; the A300 accepts Compact Flash memory cards instead—the least expensive, most rugged, most capacious type available. The button layout and software design are a delight, too. For an SLR, it is quite small, and it feels terrific in your hand.
The big question, of course, is: How do the photos look?
In good light, they look sensational. Colours are vivid, contrast is excellent, subjects are razor-sharp.
Still, you’ll realize soon enough why this is a $760 (around Rs31,000) camera, not a $1,500 one. In low light, the A300 simply doesn’t soak up enough light. Capturing subjects in motion indoors is just about hopeless without the flash, even at this camera’s maximum (and grainy) 3200 ISO setting.
Note, too, that Live View depletes your battery a lot faster than using the eyepiece viewfinder. One charge can take 750 shots with the screen turned off, but only about 400 shots with it turned on. That’s not much better than what you would get from a compact camera.
Even so, the A300 is a home run for its intended audience: first-time SLR owners. It is more camera for the money than its closest competitors from Canon or Nikon. It is a pleasure to hold and to use; the pictures generally look superb; and the uncompromised Live View feature and tilting screen grant you shots you simply can’t get with other SLRs.
Until recently, SLR stood for single-lens reflex. But on the A300, it has a whole new meaning: Sony’s Live-View Revolution.
©2008/The New York Times
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