August 29, 2021

Alphatracks

Sony and Minolta SLR Weblog

Are the Sony A700 controls professional grade?

You can’t always get what you want…but (sometimes) you get what you need.

When Sony first announced they were entering the DSLR market, there were a lot of blowhards… ah, strongly opinionated folks, who predicted that Sony would fall flat on their face. Sony was an electronics company, they didn’t know anything about photography (despite the fact that Sony has been among the top producers of still and video digital cameras for years). Sony would, they insisted, produce a bunch of mass-market crud that might appeal to people who didn’t know any better, but would drive true photographers away screaming.

Sony A700 control layout

A place for everything and everything in it’s place…control layout of the Sony Alpha dSLR A700 photo courtesy of Sony

It didn’t work out that way, and if the early A700 reports are any indication, those strongly opinionated folks are set to eat a big helping of crow. That crow meat must be pretty bitter, because the “Sony won’t build a quality dSLR” crowd is scrambling to find a way to avoid a steady diet of field birds for the foreseeable future.

They have a problem. Unless the A700 has some deep, unforeseen flaw we know nothing about, Sony hasn’t left them much room for complaining. As I said before, the A700 appears as good or better than anything in it’s class.

So how does one save his or her reputation if you publicly predicted that nothing good could come out of Sony’s acquisition of Konica-Minolta’s SLR camera business? Simple. You make up non-issues. Such as the uncertainty over the A700’s lack of a second function dial.

To be honest, I was a little concerned over this myself.

Maxxum 7D set the standard

Konica-Minolta raised he bar when they introduced the Maxxum 7D. No other digital SLR, before or since, has offered photographers the wealth of manual controls available on the 7D. All cameras have flaws and limitations and the 7D had it’s share. But a lack of manual controls wasn’t one of them. The Maxxum 7D simply stood head and shoulders above any other dSLR in that category.

A number of Minolta A-mount users were eagerly awaiting a Maxxum 9D version. They were hoping for an advanced version of the 7D, while retaining all the manual control goodness of the original.

It was not to be. Minolta’s camera business expired before the fabled 9D could become a reality, and Sony’s first dSLR offering simply didn’t boast the manual controls of the 7D.

Some 18 months later, Sony has introduced their second dSLR. It looks to be a wonderful camera. But a Maxxum 9D it is not. There is only a single dial on the top of the Alpha A700 dSLR. The lack of a second dial is the ammunition the Sony bashers are attempting to use to save a little face. Problem is, those that have actually used the camera have universally praised the camera’s controls. Who are you going to believe? Those who have had a axe to grind against Sony’s SLR from day one or those journalists who have actually used the camera in the field? I’ll take the word of the latter, thank you very much.

So what’s so bad about a menu on a dSLR?

Let’s look at the problem. Camera makers prefer menus to dials, knobs and switches, because menus are far cheaper. It’s really just software and you can program a menu to do just about anything. In contrast, knobs and switches have to be designed, produced and stockpiled. Run short of a vital button or dial and you can’t produce more cameras until new parts are collected.

Photographers, on the other hand, prefer buttons and knobs because it is usually quicker to adjust a physical control then to scroll through a series of menus hoping to remember where the one you want is hidden.

The problem with menu driven controls:

  • It is hard to find seldom used settings
  • Requires the photographer memorize where settings are located
  • Slower to scroll and engage specific menu items
  • Difficult to change menus when on a tripod without moving camera
  • Tough to use when wearing gloves, etc.

Of course knobs, dials and switches have their own problems:

  • With a knob or switch it is easy to change settings by bumping or nudging
  • To make knobs safer, camera makers often resort to a detent or lock, which in turn can make it difficult to change settings
  • There is no “reset to normal” with manual controls. With a menu control system you can usually reset everything to a normal, default state. With manual controls you have to remember to reset each control manually.

We won’t know what the A700’s controls are like to use until the camera is in wide use. Still, I am excited that those who have used the pre-release camera have pronounced the controls as excellent.

Three inch LCD offers more room for menus.

First off, the large 3 inch display offers more room to offer easy-to-use, simple menus. With smaller displays, camera makers had to resort to grouping menus in numerous modes. This is one of the objection to menus, because you had to find the right mode for the menu choice you wanted. On some cameras, you have to set the knob to a particular setting before you can reach a particular mode. So not only do you have to remember which mode you need to achieve a setting, you have to remember which knob setting will allow you to select a particular mode. Madness!

A larger LCD provides more real estate, so menus can be organized more succinctly. There is less need to switch between modes and settings, allowing the user to find a particular menu setting more easily.

Rotating LCD helps menu clutter

I saw at least one forum where a guy was mouthing-off and making fun of the rotating LCD view on the A700. He implied it was some sort of fluff marketing gimmick that was not all that useful. I disagree. If you are shooting with a vertical grip, you pull the camera away from your eye and glance at the LCD. Having the information presented in the correct orientation is a great feature. Otherwise you have to turn the camera ninety degrees, cock your head sideways or attempt to interpret the screen at the wrong orientation. I think the A700’s rotating display is a great asset and should go a long way to eliminate menu confusion.

Knobs? We don’t need no stinkin’ knobs!

Let us not forget that Sony has found space for a number of buttons and switches in addition to the main knob. The A700 isn’t one of those toy SLRs that look like a 1/4 scale model of real 35mm SLR. The somewhat larger body means there is room for many switches and buttons, which can take the place of that second dial. Many of the most important settings (white balance, auto/manual focus, anti-shake, etc. ) are available with just a button click.

Interestingly enough, as I write this, I happened to notice my old Maxxum 7000 sitting on my desk. It was considered revolutionary in it’s day, not only because of it’s advanced auto focus system but because of all the electronic features Minolta stuffed into the camera body. Guess what? There isn’t a single knob or dial anywhere on the Maxxum 7000. Everything is controlled with buttons, slide switches or rocker switches.

Hmm…if the Maxxum 7000 could gain a reputation as one of the top film SLRs of all time with out any knobs, I’m guessing the A700 should do just fine. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have actually used the camera in preference to those who are complaining without having seen the camera, much less used it.

You know who you are. You haven’t used the A700, but you’re out in the forums complaining about the lack of that second dial. What sort of side dish do you want with your entree of raw crow?

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think!