New Alpha and lens range launch imminent

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THE appearance of press-release resolution (14Mb) images of the new Alpha – un-named but thought to be the Alpha 200 or 300 because of the product code earlier assigned to shots of prototypes at PMA – combines with reports on various forums from European Sony executives visiting Japan to suggest that the launch announcement for the new model and a range of full-frame lenses is imminent. These images were available earlier this year but not to the same repro quality resolution. A clear, close-up ‘candid snap’ photograph – which we do not show here – has been circulating showing a European executive using the new camera (or at least holding it and viewing through it), fitted with the 16-80mm Carl Zeiss lens. It is claimed that this picture was taken in Japan, and shows a Polish executive with the camera, plus another shot of the body in a soft bag or covering. There seems to have been a meeting in Japan for Sony worldwide or European company staff, around the last week in June, to see the camera. If so, launch is not far away.

Rumours of a press announcement on July 9th, following earlier rumours of one on June 6th, seem to be unfounded (July 9th has passed, and Sony did make a press statement dated July 9th which was released on July 10th – it concerns HD TV). If a launch announcement is to be made, it is likely to be in first half of July – not many days to go left as I write – or after mid-August. The month from mid-July to mid-August involves too many ‘trades holidays’ and customary vacation period, and risks missing key dealer and press staff presence. Of course nothing is impossible, but generally there are very few major announcements made after the first two weeks of July, under September is nearly on us.

If an announcement is made this page will be updated!

New Alpha

Some are suggesting the name will be Alpha 10 but this seems to be a ‘personal agenda’ guess presuming that an ultimate higher model will be an Alpha 1. This rather closes the doors for future model naming and the cryptic filenames given to February’s mock-up photographs indicates Alpha 300 for the APS-C sensor model and Alpha 500 for a full frame, leaving space for a 200 upgrade to the Alpha 100, and perhaps lower model numbers such as Alpha 50 for a low-cost entry level design. The camera now about to be released is the APS-C version, seen above. From the picture, we know that the main mode dial is identical to the Alpha 100 but moved to the left hand of the top plate, while the Function dial disappears and is replaced by separate function buttons, instantly accessed, for key controls.

The shutter release has a plus-minus over-ride button immediately behind it, in a similar position to Nikon, who have never been entirely sure whether to place theirs to the left or the right of a pair of buttons (it varies according to the camera model). A single button reduces ambiguity. There is a rear control wheel for the thumb, essential now that the over-ride is accessed using the shutter finger. It may be possible to use your middle finger for the shutter and index finger for the over-ride button. White Balance, ISO, and Drive settings are all accessed on the right-hand top plate in a well separated pattern which should be very easy to learn. Care has been taken with ergonomics to place these three function buttons in the order of their most likely use. If you think you see a fourth button, you don’t – that is the focal plane index marking hiding just behind the prism edge.

The new camera has a studio flash X-synch socket with an anchored, rather than unscrew-and-lose, cover to seal it. It is in about the same position as the Dynax 7D, but placed below the strap D-ring to avoid interference. The vertical grip optional accessory, like the main camera body, incorporates the Minolta-patented touch sensor strip which responds to pressure or skin conductivity. When the camera is held, this strip wakes it from sleep mode and activates AF, metering and other shooting functions. From the scale of the D-rings and other features it is possible to tell that this new model is not much larger than the Alpha 100 and maintains Sony’s commitment to keeping size down. The vertical grip base is a gesture to the larger congregation of ham-fisted males who find small camera bodies inconvenient. Sony identified female users as a major growth sector in the DSLR market, and said so at the Alpha 100 launch. They do not consider female users to be a market for dumbed-down smaller camera either! They are right. In the professional sector there have never been so many women relative to the old male dominance, and the college degree courses are pushing the ratio further with each passing year.

As for any other details, here at Photoclubalpha we are guessing – just as everyone else will be. It is certain that this is an APS-C model not full frame, and equally certain that a full-frame model will be released in 2008. It is likely that the ‘A10/A200/A300’ uses a 12.x megapixel CMOS sensor derived not from the type made for the Nikon D2X, but from the similar technology used in the Sony Cybershot DCS R-1, which has a 1.7X factor 10.2 megapixel capture. The R-1 has a relatively slow write to buffer speed but it capable of a live image preview. Since live image preview is a buzz feature, another tick box in comparison lists against Olympus, Sony may have taken the opportunity to provide an option for live composition with this new camera.

The R-1 sensor also produces a workable ISO 3200 setting, despite criticisms of noise levels from some quarters. We tested it, and found that the noise was well controlled and a fair match for Canon – much superior to our experience using the Nikon D2X. Noise levels rise if a long time is spent composing pictures with live feed to the electronic viewfinder. If you turn on an R-1 and shoot a 3200 frame in a second or so, noise is minimal. It is likely that a sensor with the R-1’s architecture, used without live image viewing, would be exceptionally low noise. This is my bet; CMOS based on a new generation revision of the R-1 architecture.

Sony is also known for experimenting with alternatives to the Bayer RGB pattern. Again, I would not be surprised to see a quad filtered or even an RLB (red, luminance and blue – no green filter) sensor appear in a future Sony model. If the ‘A10/A200/A300’ does use R-1 type CMOS, we may see an ISO range from 50 to 3200 and possibly an extension to 6400. Another possible feature if a sensor with live view is used is on-sensor exposure and focus. Anyone who has used an EVF camera will know that focus can be nailed to exceptional precision even with very short focal lengths. This is a main failing of existing DSLR AF systems.

Pressure is on Sony to increase the frame rate (fps) and they will by now have learned that unlimited 3fps shooting, like our own test of over 500 frames in sequence, is actually not as useful as a sensible burst of 6 to 10 frames at 5fps. They will also know that this must be accomplished using RAW capture, and not limited to JPEGs. My guess would be 6 frames at 4.5fps or better in RAW, 10 frames in JPEG, but they may contrive the ‘unlimited JPEG’ trick again with the help of today’s extremely fast memory cards.

The prism will almost certainly be glass not a hollow mirror porroprism, as the camera is to compete with the Nikon D80 (glass), Pentax K10D (glass) and Canon 30(+)D – again, glass. The eyepiece magnification is not likely to be much enhanced, maybe by 0.05X overall, as attempts to do so always result in eyepoint problems for spectacle wearers or metering issues due to a very large ocular. Since DSLRs pretty much depend on in-prism TTL metering, keeping the eyepiece small and well surrounded becomes a priority. As for weathersealing, general ruggedness and functionality we can’t guess but Pentax sets the benchmark with the K10D and Sony is under pressure to match this basic standard of dust and moisture proofing.

Other features we can not guess at. SSS is an absolute certainty – the in-body anti shake is the biggest single selling point of the system – and some overhaul of the firmware for the flash system is overdue. It is even possible that new flash units may be introduced, more likely that performance with the existing wireless system will be improved by changes to the in-camera controller. Don’t hold out big hopes for DRO or DRO+ being a part of the new model. Some other technology from the DRO+ inventors, Apical Ltd, may be incorporated. I feel that the Apical IRIDIX processor built into the Alpha 100 alongside the Sony BIONZ may be in part responsible for higher residual image noise levels observed in the Alpha 100, relative to other DSLRs using a similar sensor. This has been a sensitive issue for Sony, and if the DRO+ system and its required chip had anything to do with it, they would be moving on to a new solution. Apical themselves have been concentrating on noise reduction solutions alongside dynamic range optimisation, and have new processors for video already announced. If they turn out to have been working with Sony on the ‘Alpha 200’ I’ll almost bet on their contribution relating to both NR and DRO, in a different form.

Sony has a habit of introducing radical and unexpected technology in new products. We may therefore expect surprises, not always the predictable ones. I do not think for example that this will be the first DSLR to have an HD video recording function for the new generation of stock and press shooters required to create video clip footage! That camera is still two years in the future and it may not resemble a DSLR. It’s more likely to be a video camera with a 10+ megapixel professional quality still capture option.

Full frame lenses

Sony has also made available, via hard-to-find areas of international websites, images of the next round of Sony SAL lenses to hit the market. Details of the specifications have been leaked, probably from the June 2007 meetings in Japan. All the new lenses are full-frame, confirming the rumours that the ‘A-500’ due in 2008 will be a full-frame or 1.1X model.

400 and 600

The 400mm f/4.5 and 600mm f/4 Sony SAL G (D) apochromatic telephotos were known to be in the pipeline from the start. They are revised versions of the classic Minolta G glass, and are presumed to use SSM sonic motor focusing because it was known that Konica Minolta already planned to incorporate SSM into these long lenses. However the prototypes shown and photographed may be a 300mm f/4 and 600mm f/4, or even a 200mm f/2.8 (looking at the size of the AF hold button on the smaller lens). The relative size of the mount, the tripod collar handgrip and the rear filter slot indicate that the larger lens is the 600mm. Statements that the smaller one is a 400mm f/4 seem very unlikely judging from the mount size and the tripod collar. It looks most like a new 300mm f/4 but could be a focal length we have not seen before, like 240mm or 280mm, or an aperture like f/3.5 instead of f/4.

One visitor to PMA who has contacted me remains sure that the larger lens will be a 400mm f/2.8 because its size is so similar to the Canon of that specification. Because of the length of the lens hood, which reveals no front glass in other views of the lens, it is impossible to tell. The grab handle is identically positioned to the 600mm f/4 and although the rear barrel sections are stepped in different thicknesses, their overall length and scale relative to the filter (dummy) slot and rear mount, and the control buttons, all compare directly to the old 600mm f/4. However, a 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 share the same approximate front group size. It just looks rather long for a 400mm given advanced in lens design.

tele zooms

The 70-300mm f/4-5.6 on the left appears to be an internal focusing optic which can trace a pedigree back to the 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 of 1986 – not so much a ‘big beercan’ as a pint in a can. This lens comes in with a higher assumed build quality and better performance, with marginal extra speed, compared to the kit-lens 75-300mm. It may appear redundant to have two such similar designs but we can expect optical and mechanical benefits making this a better match to the Carl Zeiss 16-80mm it will team up with so well – and the forthcoming 24-70mm, see below.

The 80-400mm on the right is probably f/4.5-6.3 or f/4-5.6. It bears no relationship to any previous Minolta design, and replaces (in effect) the old Apo 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3. Since it looks fatter, the speed may be enhanced. This is a lens which would have benefited from an SSM focus motor, but I have doubts whether Sony will use SSM in any lenses of this type.

Both these lenses – see notes below – are in a crackle black finish which has so far only been used for Carl Zeiss ZA lenses. This seems to indicate that both the new telephoto zooms are CZ ZA.

New wider lenses

This line-up is the real pointer to full-frame in 2008. On the left, we have (it is claimed) the 16-35mm constant aperture full frame f/2.8. This is a monster of a lens, competing with Canon’s equally huge similarly specified L model which needed revision to make it fully compatible with digital capture. Sony starts out by designing for all three formats – digital APS-C, digital full frame and film full frame – from the start. Will it be a Carl Zeiss? The finish of the ’16-35mm’ in the full size produc shots is crackle black, like the CZ 16-80mm. Sony SAL lenses are smooth satin anodized in appearance; CZ SAL lenses are hammer/crackle/spray effect black like an epoxy coating. This lens is in CZ finish.

It has also been suggested that one of the two zooms shown here is actually a high-end 18-250mm. Neither resembles the Tamron 18-250mm which Sony will almost certainly release in SAL form, and the front element profiles are not similar to the expected curvature of an 18-250mm. The argument that Sony must introduce lenses of higher quality than those co-produced with Tamron is countered by the existence of the 11-18mm (a Tamron co-design) as the only true wide-angle lens in the entire SAL range. Personally, I do not consider 28mm or 24mm equivalents to be particularly wide-angle. Fox Talbot’s original ‘lattice window’ photograph was taken with a lens covering the same angle as a 24mm and the Rapid Rectilinear, a late 19th c design used for much of the classic industrial and architectural record work of the era, had a similar coverage. The Tamron-produced 11-18mm is the one single lens in the entire SAL range which goes shorter than 16mm. If there is a gap for a higher quality option anywhere in the line-up it’s here, but no such prototype has been shown.

Next along is the 24mm f/1.4 full frame wide angle. This becomes equivalent to the much sought-after 35mm f/1.4 length when used on the Alpha 100/200. Again, we have no idea whether this is a Zeiss or a pure Sony SAL design but this one is satin finish not crackle, so it points to Sony branding.

Third from the left is a lens which we believe is a Carl Zeiss, and which was accidentally included in the flashed-up slide during a presentation for the Alpha 100 launch in June 2006. It is the 24-70mm f/2.8 constant aperture, replacing the old G-series Minolta. Since some hints have come from Zeiss that this lens was one of theirs, it’s the only one I will risk a positive guess on. It is in the crackle finish which backs up CZ branding.

Finally, at the right hand end there is an unexpected model, said to be a 35mm f/1.8. Since there is already a fairly compact if expensive 35mm f/1.4 G (D) lens as seen on the shot of the new camera, a 35mm f/1.8 is the least likely of the all the specifications so far leaked or indicated. One possibility is that this is a Carl Zeiss lens, because Sony may choose to have similar designs in the classic Minolta-originated SAL range and the premium Carl Zeiss SAL range. Another possibility is that the two-thirds of a stop light loss is accompanied by a two-thirds price reduction, positioning this more as a ‘standard lens’ for APS-C. A final possibility is that this lens, out of all the line-up, may not be full frame. Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 is a digital format only lens, and bigger by far than any standard 50mm f/1.4 for full frame. The scale of 35mm f/1.8 shown here may just be correct for an APS-C standard lens. This one is a Sony-finish, satin black not crackle, which confirms possible lower pricing.

Some of these photographs show signs of being prototype versions, and the different colour balances and densities of the originals indicate that they were not all in the studio on the session. Individual EXIF data shows March 5th 2007 between 11.55am and 12.20pm, but the images don’t match – they were taken on an Alpha 100, while the main camera shot was taken on a Phase One P25 back at 3.54pm. There is evidence of retouching on some of the images and the 24-70mm has the entire front element retouched into place.

I have matched densities, sizes and angles as well as possible for a visual presentation and composed the three pictures here from single-shot originals. They do not indicate actual relative sizes. Group shots from PMA give better clues.

We have asked Sony UK to provide any reliable information possible at this stage, but we will be subject to the same embargoes and deadlines as the rest of the media. This report is based only on gleanings from internet sources and prior leaks, rumours, previews or statements. It is not based on any official information released by Sony and you should watch our pages for full and correct details when available. Even better, watch Sony’s websites, as this is how they are most likely to release the details.

– David Kilpatrick


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