The future of camera technology? Maybe. A review of the Sony A33
When Sony's engineers thought: "hm! who says the mirror has to flip up and down? Why not just use a translucent mirror instead and let some light pass up to the viewfinder, and the rest directly through to the sensor?" they were on to something. The TIME concurred and put the Sony A55 (the A33's bigger brother) on their 2010 top-50 inventions. Pretty cool!
So how can a translucent mirror make a great camera?
Translucent mirror technology is exactly what the name implies: a mirror that reflects a portion of the light upwards to the AF-sensor and lets the rest pass through to the sensor. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) gets its signal directly from the image sensor.
Sony's new technology offers a couple of benefits over the traditional mirror implementation in a DSLR. First of all, the camera can be made lighter, as the frame and motor moving the mirror is eliminated. Secondly, the camera can easily keep up with the fast top-end DSLRs shooting at 7 frames per second. Lastly, and most important in my book, the mirror does not have to be moved for video recording making the A33 the best and easiest video autofocus experience in any DSLR at the moment.
Ergonomically Sony's DSLRs have matured. Quite natural considering is it just a little over four years since the Alpha line debuted with the A100. The new A33 is on par with similarly priced DSLRs ergonomically speaking, and even outshines the competition in some areas.
Kudos to Sony for such a great job on the new autofocus implementation. I am big fan of being able to quickly change AF point on the fly without having to dive into complex menu settings. Nikon does this very well today right down to their entry level D3000. Sony is now doing the same in the A33. Press the AF button, and you can quickly select one of the 15 points using the four-way rocker. Using the middle AF buttons allows Sony to keep easy access to ISO, display settings, release mode, and white balance. Very cool!
Great job on the ports as well. Opens easily and stays closed. Two additional buttons on top of camera allows you to quickly change the D-Range settings (Dynamic Range) and switch between the electronic viewfinder and back LCD.
For the A33, Sony has also improved its own swivelling LCD implementation allowing for a wider range of motion, including shooting in portrait orientation. The LCD also flips around for the ultimate screen protector.
OK, so really, how is the EVF to use? That was one of the first questions I asked before picking up the A33.
Honestly, it is good. Not as good as the optical viewfinder on a D700 or 5D mk2, but few viewfinders are. Compared to cameras within it's own class, it offers 100% frame coverage and is without the typical 'tunnel vision' you often get in entry to mid-level DSLRs. I would venture that once you have gotten used to it after a couple of week shooting, you forget it is an electronic and not optical viewfinder you are looking through. To some degree it is still a technology in its early stages, and expect to see improvements over the next two years.
But one thing is certain, I would not let the viewfinder be what kept me from buying this great camera. It is that good and non-intrusive despite being electronic. My highlight of using it is the fact you can view playback images directly in the viewfinder after a shot is recorded. Normally, you would take the camera from your eye hold it at arm's length and view the back LCD. Not so with the A33. Here the image is instantly played back in the viewfinder. Super practical!
No need to dwell on the A33's image quality. It is good. Very good. It is just that the new mirror technology, video and viewfinder are much more interesting. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Comparatively, I would put the A33 on par with the new Nikon D3100. A sensor I drooled all over in my review.
In terms of high ISO quality, the Sony A33 and Nikon D3100 are also neck-at-neck. ISO 12800 with Nikon D3100 on the left and Sony A33 on the right.
Truth be told, I am no videographer. Still images are my thing, and video has never really caught on. Especially DSLR video. Blame it on a combination of under-developed skills and not very user-friendly video implementation in DSLRs so far. That'a about to change with the A33.
Demonstrating the A33's great video implementation. with a smack of jellyfish. Seriously, that is the technical term for a group of jellyfish.
From my point of view, what makes the A33 shine is its autofocus.
- Autofocus just works. Plain and simple. I dare you to try out video autofocus on any other DSLR, like the Nikon D3100 or Canon T2i, and then compare that to the A33. The Sony comes out on top. Hands down.
- Autofocus even allows you to change focus point while recording. Pretty cool.
- Despite shooting in very limited light at the Vancouver Aquarium, the video AF still worked flawlessly. Great job, Sony!
Oh yeah, and the camera shoots full 1080p HD encoded in AVCHD. Plus, you get a simple red record button. Press and you are recording.
Is it the way of the future? Maybe. Replacing the traditional mirror with a translucent one certainly is a refreshing take on how to manufacture DSLRs. What's more, it shows Sony's ability to think outside the box. Something the mastodons of the camera world (read Canon and Nikon) are failing at. If Sony sells enough (whatever that number is) of the A33, we could easily see the translucent technology migrate to the manufacturers coming entry and mid level DLSR models over the next couple of years.
- 85mm f1.4
- San Francisco
- shutter speed