Alpha 900 and photokina: Part 1
OUR final production Alpha 900 body arrived on Saturday September 20th, and went along to photokina 2008 on Monday 22nd where it was used in a routine way – without flash – to take whatever pictures were needed for magazine reports. Sometimes it can be better just to use a camera on whatever difficult or poor subjects the world throws at you, than to devise impressive test situations.
We arrived in time to register with the press office, discover that our hotel had sold our room (and have a complimentary beer while they unsold it!), and head off into the woods beyond Cologne’s suburbs for a dinner organised by Nikon UK. The presence of an Alpha 900 was not an embarrassment and Nikon execs were interested to see it; they all visit each other stands and have a thorough look at the opposition offerings during photokina anyway!
At ISO 800 the A900 isn’t even having to struggle with strange lighting conditions like this (bright enough to see your food) but later on, when the UK press party had thanked Miwa-san and his colleagues for an enjoyable evening, we hit Papa Joe’s in the Alter Markt. This bar is famous as the meeting place for the international photo press during photokina – but it’s also very dark, crowded and full of musical automata and illuminated signs. If there’s any place which would be destroyed by on-camera flash, impossible with bounce flash, it’s Papa Joe’s at night – short of filmset style multiple head lighting, ambient light is the only way to get a record. So the Alpha 900 had to be set to ISO 3200 and +1 over-ride to cope with the bright parts of the extremely contrasty scene fooling the meter.
An 11.2 megapixel version of this shot can be opened by clicking the picture. Why 11.2 megapixels? It is processed from a cRAW file using ACR 4.6 RC, and this is one of the downsized options you get. The Alpha 900 native resolution is the maximum size in the list of exported sizes now. While ISO 3200 is not going to beat a Nikon D3 (etc) when viewed pixel for pixel, 24.5 megapixels versus 12.2, when you reduce the size of the A900 image to closely match the D3 size results in similar conditions give the A900 an edge in detail resolution – and slightly less mushy noise.
So, what I’ve done to make real comparison possible with the A700/D300/D3/D700 and similar +/-12 megapixel models is to resize all the photokina shots on the A900 to 11.2 megapixels export.
Here is one of Papa Joe’s musical automata during playing. If you think the skin looks a bit plastic – it is!
For the full sized image (again, accessible by clicking the in-line image) some sharpening, some luminance and chroma NR were all applied because it could take this without getting rough. Here is a section of the image seen at 100% (of the 11.2 megapixel export) with no sharpening, and no luminance NR – just a colour NR setting of 50 in ACR. Check out the eyelashes:
Is this good for an ISO 3200 image processed using these parameters? I believe it is. I have used the Nikon D3 and D700 in similarly low light conditions, but mainly the D3. I know what the noise of the D3 looks like, and have praised its high ISO performance particularly at 6400 and above – at the time of its launch, nothing else went above 6400 or did 6400 as well. But that the D3 is ‘noise free’ is a myth even at ISO 400.
Here is a similar 100% section of a D3 ISO 3200 shot taken in a very similar level and quality of light, with some similar colours, and at the same aperture – though my photokina shot used an inexpensive KM 17-35mm D lens at f5.6 and 30mm, while the D3 shot uses a very expensive 24-70mm Nikkor at f5.6 and 24mm:
Now in my book, at the very similar 11/12 megapixel size the D3 has a much softer resolution and shows a more distinct (but film-like, and evenly distributed) noise grain. I think the A900 downsized to 12 megapixels will display higher detail resolution, and less noise before post-processing, than a similar Nikon D3 processed from raw. JPEGs are a different matter; the Alpha 900 ‘Fine’ JPEGs are not pleasant, and get worse as you increase the ISO setting. That is why, after experimenting with Extra Fine JPEG (much bigger than a cRAW!) and RAW+JPEG, I shot everything using cRAW.
In the morning – with just a single day to spend at the show – I found myself on the wrong S-Bahn train, and had to return from the next stop to get the right one. Travel is free throughout Cologne public transport when you buy a Messe fair ticket (or at least, a photokina ticket) or have a press card. By luck, the train which arrived to return me was branded Sony Alpha!
Now if you doubt just how extremely sharp the Alpha 900 gets using normal ISO speeds, and exporting to 11.2 megapixel size, click this one and view full size. Look at the structure of the ‘foam’ below the Alpha camera and you’ll see moiré patterns. The camera, here, is outresolving the subject. The Alpha 900 has a unique AA filter, which is positioned well to the front of the CMOS imaging sensor. There is a big gap. This has two effects – first, it places all dust further from the image plane, meaning that most minor sensor dust will never be seen at all.
Secondly (though Sony do not say this) when you move an AA filter further from the sensor, it must be weaker. The diffraction pattern which softens the image has a strength linked to the distance between sensor and filter – try putting a soft focus filter on a printed page, then lifting it up slowly, to see why this is so. The weaker filter, further from the sensor, has a much less destructive effect on micro detail contrast and is especially friendly to wide angle lenses.
I was shooting very quickly – these were barely planned, I just had time to register the Sony branding, shoot, and jump on the train. Inside, I had to lean over between people to get the right angle for a Cologne view – no time to alter the camera settings, or do anything except focus-lock on the Alpha symbol and recompose:
The man whose arm can be seen near the Alpha was surprised by my sudden invasion of his space but spotted the camera and the symbol and realised what I was doing. Again, click the pic to blow it up!
Approaching the Messe halls, Sony had large posters up:
And in the flowerbeds beside walkways and roads, more flexible displays:
During the day, it began to rain heavily meaning we didn’t even do our usual walking back over the bridge into the city centre, and finding our way back to the attractive Heumarkt square ‘Albergo XII Apostel’ hotel through the old town. A taxi was the only way to keep dry. So, I have no idea if Sony ‘owned’ Cologne the way Nikon and Canon (and others) have in past years.
Shirley and I have been visiting photokina now for 35 years – our first was in 1973, as guests of Praktica staying in their chartered Rhine hotel boat. From 1974 onwards, photokina became biennial in even years only. We started with an ‘odd one’!
In the next part of this report, I’ll show some of the stands and products and visit the Sony stand itself. Don’t worry, they didn’t launch anything new – it was all unveiled two weeks before and on sale, like my own Alpha 900, before the event started.
– David Kilpatrick