An Afternoon with the Sony SLT a33

I actually had a chance to spend a decent amount of time with an a33 today (as opposed to about five minutes of initial handling a few days ago). The viewfinder has a great initial impression. You look through it and you get a big, bright view of exactly what you’re taking, and the information overlays are great. Doubly so the real-time level. Lighting up with green for go is quite enthralling. I had the a700 with me, and in terms of eyepoint, magnification, and accuracy, the EVF had it soundly beat. It was a true vision filling sight, as opposed to the a700 which is more of a “window to the world” type of view, and definitely a huge step above an a500 or KM 5D’s end-of-tunnel view. These are just raw specs, though. I’d rank it in pure size terms as slightly smaller than an a850.

It’s one thing to beat an OVF on raw specs, though. The devil is of course in the details. While the EVF is good, it is not perfect. It’s not the newest, super highest spec EVF – the resolution is good, much better than I remember the KM A2 being. But there’s still some room for improvement and I imagine that a higher spec model would have a better finder in raw resolution/refresh rate terms. In the higher gain mode it does lose some contrast, but it’s within allowable limits, especially because using an OVF in a dark situation can be problematic in and of itself.

The EVF absolutely needs some kind of switch to ignore exposure preview (a la KM A2) and ramp up the auto-gain for dark environments. It took Minolta a while to recognize this need from the Dimage 7, hopefully Sony will rectify it faster than Minolta did. Generally the camera is smart about when to use auto-gain, but it does need an override.

The viewfinder felt responsive, at least, as responsive as it could have been in the environment. Swinging the camera around resulted in a kind of rolling shutter effect at certain pan speeds. If the speed was fast enough and a properly panned subject was in the frame, it wasn’t really visible. Ditto if it was slow enough. But at, say, person walking speed, you could get some jitter. I blame this mostly on the environment – it wasn’t super bright sunlight but rather tungsten model lights. I imagine it could use minimum gain and the maximum refresh rate in a brighter environment.

I did not experience much RGB tearing, and I’m not sure if I was even able to recognize it. For me, this is probably not an issue. Your mileage will definitely vary on this front.

I had the 70-400 G with me and I was keen on seeing just how this lens would work on the a33 body. The verdict is that it reminds me a lot of the “bad old days” of the KM 5D. The old “hanging pinky” syndrome. There is just not enough grip for the pinky finger, and it winds up curling under the body. Admittedly, many cameras have this flaw, but it was obvious for me on the a33. The grip itself? Great. I had no real issues with where my fingers went on the camera, access to buttons, etc. The AV button is in the perfect place and the three buttons (movie, AV, and AEL) are all discernible by different touches. The shutter power switch seems better placed than on the a500, and I actually didn’t switch it off accidentally at all, which surprised me. Some users will find this grip to be a dealbreaker with large lenses, and I don’t blame them, but admittedly many cameras of this price class have similar issues. The a33’s compactness is quite shocking when placed next to an a700.

The body’s actual build quality felt good. Certainly no worse than KM 5D. The new textured rubber material felt quite solid and was an improvement over the a700. The plastic body felt good. No creaks or obvious issues, but you can tell that the body shell is plastic. The cinnabar circle around the lens mount is now some kind of metallic copper instead of the orange paint that the a700 has. It’s actually a bit subtler and classier. AF-MF switch still feels like a KM 5D switch and has a firm click, but IMO is too hard to switch. Certainly better than the a500’s switch, though.

Incidentally, the battery/memory door does clear my Manfrotto RC-2 quick release plate, so using this on a tripod and changing cards or batteries should not be a problem with this type of QR plate. However, some L-brackets or very large quick release plates may be an issue in this regard. Fortunately, most of these systems allow changing of orientation to work around this. Definitely a “try before you buy” here.

The extra “eye spacing” of the EVF from the back of the body was a welcome change from the a700 and other SLRs where I’ve sort of adapted to holding my face sideways to the camera. If you’ve got a big schnozz, you might still hit the LCD panel, but I didn’t. Also, there is a fraction of a second delay for the automatic switching of EVF and LCD screen. It is something I would probably get used to in time, but these few milliseconds are initially notiecable. There is no warm-up time to the EVF, it just takes a fraction of a second to go from “off” to “on.

Speaking of the LCD panel, the flip-out screen worked very well for waist level shooting. I could easily imagine having this body and the G on a tripod, following action with the LCD screen and not getting so “lost” in the viewfinder. It’s just like an old Hasselblad. An a77 type camera MUST have this feature.

The port flaps felt OK for rubber flaps. They closed securely but IMO I prefer the door-type flaps on the a700. That’s just a personal thing, someone could probably go either way on it.

Unfortunately, since I have not yet used this camera for my primary type of shooting (aviation), I probably can’t truly judge some aspects of it. Say, how well the EVF would work on a jet in blue sky. However, I was able to use both continuous shooting and AF.

The “slideshow effect” of continuous shooting definitely takes some getting used to. I did not experience any buffer blackouts or responsiveness issues; the camera was preloaded with an HG HX “insert letters here” memory stick which felt plenty fast. For things coming at or away from you, I doubt you’d really notice it most of the time. But going from side-to-side it is definitely there. The a33’s lower framerates/buffer probably contribute to this a bit, but in Continuous priority on the mode dial the shutter flips so quickly that I was kind of getting the hang of it. I imagine a camera with a more powerful shutter with faster sync speed (cough, a77) will be even better on this front.

Keep in mind that I can still make framing errors with my a700 OVF due to mirror blackouts and tracking going in and out of the frame. It’s very tough to truly get perfect at this and even the best shooters with no camera support (e.g. gimbals) will make mistakes from time to time. The EVF is not a solution to these problems and will still exhibit them a bit. However, having a big 100% view can’t hurt, and the thing is certainly not terrible. Great for some, adequate for others.

How’s the AF? It’s good. Very good. Put it up against D5000s, digital Rebels, etc, and it’d come out a clear victor in my estimation. Against a Canon 7D or Nikon D300 or even the new D7000? Those cameras would win, but for a variety of reasons that are, in my estimation, not really due to raw horsepower in terms of AF speed or tracking locks. Would they be better in those terms? Probably, but this camera is nipping at their heels in terms of raw horsepower. It just needs some taming and massaging that those higher level models have and that an a77 SHOULD have.

Again, I was not able to truly test it against my main area of expertise, but I was able to shoot some slow to fast moving objects with the 70-400, and the overall tracking experience felt very good. For instance, a skateboarder doing tricks on a series of ramps was one of the subjects, and it seemed capable of good burst tracking in wide area focus. The camera makes it very clear where it’s focusing, as many AF sensors light up at once and quickly change to show you where it’s acquiring focus. It’s almost christmas-tree like, in a way. The main criticism I could give is that it feels TOO responsive and that hopefully a higher level model will have some ways to tweak the AF system in terms of focus point grouping and time delay for attempting to change focus. The camera seems smart enough to stick with “groups” of points based on your composition, but I am a control freak and would prefer to explicitly say “use the central group of AF points only.”

The camera appears to continue AFing in AF-C mode even during your exposure, which may seem disconcerting at first. I’m not sure if there’s a shutter speed threshold where it stops doing this. It could be used to one’s advantage.

Changing the focus point in local area focus is a breeze – press the AF button and use the four way. Done. Not as convenient as the a700’s joystick, but actually more convenient than how it used to be on the 5D and doubly so than the weak a330’s “go into a menu” version.

Suffice to say that beginner to most amateur users would, IMO, be satisfied with this AF. More demanding users will miss configurability options but will probably find it usable in many situations and definitely an improvement over what they were using in the past. For me, this kind of AF jump would probably equivalent to the one I experienced from the KM 5D to the a700 in terms of up-front user experience.

Face Detection in Program mode was quite good for some quick portraits. I didn’t have to wait on the camera at all, which was a surprise to me, and seemed to give people shots with wide area focus some help. This will definitely be helpful to people who are on full auto. I’d probably use this feature often when doing people shoots, as with wide area focus it means I have to mess around less with specifically choosing focus points. Seeing all four AF points light up in a face detected area when doing a rule-of-thirds composition was quite enjoyable.

On the subject of the camera’s UI, it’s clearly no a700, but it’s not unusable. It is just different and takes getting used to. In a straight holistic view of it, the camera’s Fn button mode is really not all that different than QuickNavi on the a700. If you turn on the super-information display overlay on the LCD image, it actually feels like you’re directly controlling the options. You can also use the dials on the camera body to manipulate the settings, just as on the a700. Where it feels different is that QuickNavi combined with the a700’s joystick is very fast. A four-way controller is a step backwards in terms of speed. But the gestalt is still there. It is also missing the ability for the direct access buttons to enable the Fn view, which the a700 could do. Pressing ISO dumps you into the dedicated ISO selection screen. However, it is nice that the changes to ISO, white balance, etc are instantly reflected in the viewfinder/LCD image. This is not unlike the a550, but since it is using the actual image view, it’s truly representative of what you’ll shoot.

The Fn menu does remember the last thing you used, at least, it feels like it did.

It would take some getting used to having options on the four-way (e.g. drive, ISO, disp, WB). Not having a C button to set to flash compensation is a bummer. Honestly, the flash button should enable flash compensation with a flash attached, but I did not test this since I did not have my F58 with me. It could be there for all I know, but I doubt it.

I recorded all of two movies – one with AF and one without. The AF movie mode has to be seen to believed. It really works, and it works well. The caveats are all well known at this point, but I could actually see myself using it for recording videos to put on FlightLevel350 or for my personal use. I also tried manual mode with aperture control, and it seemed to work well enough. Both the EVF and the main LCD are great for framing and adjusting focus. Is it missing some stuff? Absolutely. Give me some kind of blinkies for exposure problems, give me an edge detection for focus. AEL works as advertised for locking exposure. Presetting aperture in A mode also works, but you’re committed for the length of the clip. The camera does need an individual gain/shutter control, but this is worked around by setting your options in manual mode, pressing AEL, then recording. Unfortunately, there is no predictability as to what variable will be modified when adjusting exposure compensation. An amateur/casual user would generally be OK with this arrangement, but demanding users will not, and the a77 needs to have manual control of these options. If the a55 gets these options, as scuttlebutt seems to be pointing towards, then most of this paragraph is rendered moot.

Ultimately, my opinion is that cameras like the NEX VG-10 are the future for large sensor video recording for a variety of reasons. But video DSLRs are here to stay, so we might as well make the best of the situation.

Depth of Field preview works great. The screen/viewfinder auto gains to show a proper exposure, so no more dim finder. The camera also shows a very accurate depth of field preview – I could not tell the difference between the captured image and the preview (obviously because it’s all done on main sensor). It also doubles as a focus stop/exposure lock. That could be useful in some situations.

I cannot judge image quality, as I did not have my own personal SD/MS card to take photos with.

All in all, this is an impressive camera. Is it for everyone? No. But this is the future of digital imaging. Some day the mirror will go away entirely, but this is about 90% there. There’s a lot to like, and some things not to like, but for a first step forward, this thing is a big leap forward (with probably a step back for some users depending on their backgrounds or what level of camera they are used to using).

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1 Comment

Filed under Photography

One response to “An Afternoon with the Sony SLT a33

  1. Mark Albala

    Great review
    I bought one of the A33s, and it has exceeded my expectations. The real deal maker was the quick focus speed, and all I can say is WOW.

    I have avoided digital SLRs primarily due to the weight, and the tendency to leave them behind because of their heft. This one negates that problem, which is very much appreciated. Yes, the NEX format is lighter, but the loss of the viewfinder is a real distraction. Vendors, please listen up.

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