Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sony A100: Why I Will Always Love It

Sony A100: Why I Will Always Love It
April 2020, Carl Garrard

Konica Minolta's camera business was bought by Sony officially on March 31, 2006, about a year after the two companies agreed to co-develop digital SLR cameras together (July, 2005). Konica Minolta cited that the quickly growing digital camera industry was moving at a pace which, despite their talented staff and excellent technology resources, simply could not keep up with. This was both disconcerting and exciting news alike. On one hand, the Alpha lens mount would survive, and on the other hand a "television electronics company" was taking the reins of a historical and innovative photography company.  Through this merger came Sony's Alpha A100, the very first interchangeable lens camera with the Sony badge on the front. To this day I still consider the A100 to be a Konica Minolta camera, not only because of its resemblance to the Konica Minolta 5D, but because KM employees retained by Sony, designed and built it.

Seems like all that happened yesterday, in a blink of an eye.


I'll never forget the excitement I felt when I realized that I was going to purchase my very first Digital SLR. To have a digital camera that I could switch lenses out with, just like my older film cameras, was an exciting proposition that opened the door to many a creative venue. I'd no longer be beholden to the rather limited fixed lens digicams that I had been using exclusively for digital work (Sony's R1, F828, and V3 for example).

My first DSLR. The Sony A100.

My purchase of the A100 was the first domino to fall, to whit a chain reaction of events ensued that lead to so many other of my photography related projects. I have sort of put the blame of the last 16 years worth of my digital photography pursuits squarely on the little A100.

Without it, surely I would not have changed the heading I was on, and this course correction ultimately changed and enriched my life more than I can possibly convey in one short article. I'm sure others understand exactly what I'm talking about.

A100 and the 135mm STF, still the best bokeh you can buy. Long may those colors wave.

So it's probably no wonder when I say that I can't stop loving this little camera. No matter how many times I've owned one, and subsequently sold it like an idiot (four times now?), I find that I cannot see my life go on without one hanging around. And it's not just because of the storied history I have with it either, nor all of the fond (and sad) memories, or the strong emotional connection as a result of all of that. Certainly, that is quite enough reason in itself to feel inspired to share all of this with you. But there is much more to tell.

This tree burned to the ground the day after I made this picture. It's the last known photo of it while it lived.

In fact, as I'm writing this I'm smiling (and tearing up a little) as flash back after flashback of so many memories are surfacing up once again. Man this camera and I, we've really been through so much together. More than a few loved ones that I've made pictures of with it, have since passed on. I've traveled with it throughout three U.S states. Carried it to some of the highest mountain peaks. And I've made some of the very first photographs of my only daughter with it.

I may never have a more loyal and loving companion.

Apollo (who aptly loved the sun), is now long gone up there in kitty heaven. And he tolerated my A100 being stuffed in his face more times than I can count. Ever patient, eager to pose, or take a long nap with me after an exhausting full day of photographing out on the trail. I am reminded through my many photographs of him what the pinnacle of being unconditionally accepting and loving looks like. He set a bar that I have yet to achieve in my life. I sure do miss him purring me to sleep next to my head every day.

Yeah, you could say I have a special connection to this camera. Sigh.

My late friend Keith, A100. One of the very first photographs I made of him, given as a gift. It's still the main picture on his surviving blog to this day.

Recently, all of the above played a decisive role to once again, after a long three years apart, purchase yet another A100. I was lucky enough to find one like new, in the original box at Adorama Camera for a mere $89.00. Destiny? Unlikely, but sometimes I wonder. And well worth the cost.

Jorn, the proud Dane that taught me that being a man could not only be as uncompromising as a hammer, but also as yielding and soft as down feathers. I miss you buddy.

The Little A100

Switching gears completely now, I want to say a few words about the technology and design of camera itself.  What makes the A100, an outdated camera that most have forgotten all about, so appealing from a technology and design aspect in the year 2020? Well, the geek in me just cannot resist talking about a few admirable qualities of this camera that have indeed survived the test of time. Lets do this with a list.
Sony (KM) sorted the A100 well. Most camera operational controls on the right, and menu/playback controls on the left. Left brain, right brain. Minolta genius. Great size and weight. A rubber thumb pad is all that was overlooked.

10mp CCD Sensor- Since CCD sensors are no longer used for consumer digital cameras (for various reasons I won't get into), this gives the A100 a leg up in my book immediately. CCD output is subtlety different than CMOS output. All of its pixels make an image at once, referred to as a "global shutter" at times. This is opposed to CMOS that makes an image one line at a time. When you add that unique aspect with the imperfect nature of older CCD design, you end up with images that have a more unique look that stands apart from high tech CMOS sensors. For those who love CCD output like myself, you won't be disappointed with this sensor, especially at low ISO values.

Plenty of detail for 20x30" prints. I've got this one on my wall, and I've sold quite a few copies of it over the  years. I could print this at 24x36" no problem. The A100's converted b/w files from raw are excellent.

Minarets, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA shot prior to my long hike up to Shadow Lake.

Stabilization In Camera- Sony's "super steady shot" was actually developed by Konica Minolta, one of the first companies to put stabilization in a camera body. This ensures that every lens you attach could benefit from a stabilized platform. These days, even the newest cameras that come from companies that originally denounced this design as inferior to optical systems, are starting to include this as a standard feature.

Yes, this genius idea that never died, and has now become the most popular type of blur reducing solution available to photographers. I knew it was the most flexible and overall superior system back then, as much as I know it is now. And yet, the A100's steady shot still works quite well despite the fact that it is 15 year old technology. Having a dedicated switch for steadyshot is still better than diving into any menu to turn it off and on.

Hand held at 450mm, steady shake works.
In addition to the A100 having blur reduction, the system doubles as a dust removing vibration unit. It works partially, but for fine dust particles the ultrasonic high speed systems from other companies work much better. Don't be surprised if you need to clean your sensor now and then.

Simple and Intuitive Menu System- Sony's newest cameras are constantly criticized for their menu system: the complexity, disorganization, and illogical naming conventions continue to frustrate many users. Sony/Minolta did a much better job with their menu systems in the early days. All of the Alpha series DSLR's from the 7D to the A900 incorporate Sony's most successful menu systems ever. Menu systems are a big deal to photographers, especially how they connect and work with the external controls. Thankfully, the A100's menu system is very easy to navigate and memorize.

Comfort and Handling- Sony's newer Alpha and older NEX mirrorless cameras are also criticized in this aspect of design as well. Fortunately, the A100 does not suffer from head scratching/frustrating/and uncomfortable layout choices that Sony's new cameras do. Quite the opposite in fact. The A100 is logically laid out, and comfortable, something you appreciate the more you use it. This is something that camera designs should never fall short of, proper handling and controls are just too important.

Indeed the A100 is very comfortable to hold, even for small and larger hands, with an ample well sculpted grip that gives great balance with any sized lens. Buttons are big, easy to find and engage, and organized. The metal control dials again are well organized with quick access to common functions and modes, which work seamlessly with external buttons and dials making menu diving scarce.

The grip has a finger groove for the middle finger; between it and your thumb, you can hold the camera securely. This frees up your forefinger for use of the shutter release, control dial, and top button.

Long Battery Life- Sometimes it seems like this camera's battery never runs out. With the lack of live view or video, there is not much power needed to perform it's tasks. I have taken the A100 on a weekend excursion many times and have never drained a full battery. CIPA rates this camera to have about a 750 shot capacity. That is a worst case estimate. In my 14 years of using the A100, I find that with some basic power management and average in camera flash use, it's very easy to double that figure. At times I have even tripled it.

Slower But It's Dependable- It's 9 point AF system may be antiquated, slower and louder than newer cameras, but despite it being over 14 years old, I find it to be very accurate and capable in all but the most dim of circumstances. It may not be quick in low light, but it is tenacious and will hunt for its target longer than some newer systems do, many just seem to give up. In good light, it's quick enough to get the job done in many circumstances. Also, the frame rate is only about three frames per second at best gallop. But we all know you aren't reading this article because you're trying to find a sports shooters camera. Using lenses with quieter and faster motors helps too.

With a little practice, moving subjects aren't impossible to get right.

Instant On and Ready- Sony's new mirrorless cameras are also frustrating because when you turn them on there is a delay while they take time to "boot up", much like a computer. There's a lack of immediacy that the A100 does not suffer from. Start up to first shot is almost instantaneous, and when you need to make a quick grab this is an absolute necessity. Missing a shot because you are waiting for a camera to boot up is entirely and completely unacceptable. Especially in 2020.

LCD Screen- Although its 2.5" LCD screen with 230K dots is completely adequate for me, it's also not obnoxiously bright, or so big it takes up too much space. Sony also saw fit, like Konica Minolta did, to use a sensor by the viewfinder that automatically turns it off when you bring your eye to the camera. This not only saves battery life, but also eliminates the reflective glare an LCD would cause in the viewfinder too. So I am fine with LCD, I got used to it by relying on my histogram for exposure.

Design and an Opportunity

And as a photographer, one who is also supremely fascinated with camera design, I still marvel at the genius of it's simple yet effective and comfortable layout. Konica Minolta, despite their ultimate demise, really knew how to prioritize camera controls in all of the right places. And the A100, with Sony's help, is no exception.

Simple controls, and comfortably placed control wheel that you don't have to stretch your finger to adjust. The top left dial keeps you out of the main menu with quick access to the most commonly used functions.

 To me it is, and was, a better design than the camera it replaced. Adding nice touches of external refinements, such as metal dials and a metal front plate, creating tighter tolerances and stronger structure that improved its overall build quality, adding more resolution etc., these were all necessary design moves in my opinion.

Unintimidating simple design. Dual dials were ahead of its time. It only lacked a dedicated AF assist lamp that later showed up in the A700. This is my A100 shown with the dandy Sony 28mm f/2.8 (44mm equiv field of view).

As cameras have become more and more capable over the years, they have also become more and more complicated to use. This is both good and bad. Camera's designed like the A100, sadly are becoming something of a past memory now. And this in turn, by default of little to no supply, increases the value of camera's like Sony A100. Newer technology driven digital cameras have indeed left a gigantic vacuum of empty space behind them in camera design, one that I wholeheartedly believe is an ripe opportunity for camera companies to fill, if they so choose.

Modern cameras like the excellent K1-Mark II are extremely capable, but also more elaborate and challenging to use. Shot with the Sony A100, ISO 800 in raw.

So yes, it is my hope that one day that this vacuum will be acknowledged and addressed, hopefully by a courageous company that can fill this void properly. For those passionate and faithful souls that have never fallen out of love for the fundamentals of still imaging, they deserve it. And so do beginners! Let us not forget, that without the shutterbug, the consistent devotee to the art of photography, our camera market would simply not exist.

The A100 was also offered in silver, but I was never able to acquire one.


My opinion of the A100 is testament to a long lasting impression after nearly 14 years of use. It is comfortable, reliable, mostly easy to master, and will challenge you just enough to imbue a sense of accomplishment from a well planned and executed photograph. It seems to have all you need for still imaging without the headaches and complexity that many new cameras bring. It's a both a break and a challenge from all of that.

Sure, it's different to use at first than newer cameras because it lacks any sort of live view. But with only a little practice, you'll quickly adapt to using an optical finder rather than looking at screen for composition. When I have a camera up to my eye looking through an optical finder, I find I'm more connected with my subjects. I'm also much more more focused on the entire process of photography, because I'm not distracted by anything else. You will too. All that is seen is your composition and subjects, without other distractions.  And don't worry, you can rely on it's autofocus to be accurate, even if it is a bit slower in lower light, especially using the center autofocus point.

ISO 80, made in the shade. It's viewfinder is manageable, and it's autofocus is accurate. And you're rewarded with punchy colors with incredible mid tones in the raw files.

I also find that it is a nice reprise to look through glass, or in the A100's case, looking through an optical penta-mirror at a reflection. Sometimes I really do get tired of staring at digital lcd screens all day long. And although the view isn't that large and bright, it's perfectly adequate for most circumstances. Sony did offer a 1.15x (FDA-ME1AM) slide on magnifier as well, which increases the size of the view (they aren't easy to find anymore though).

Still making memories with my A100. My greatest love and proudest achievement snuggles in close. 14 years old, and my A100 works just as good now as it did in 2006.

With my strong emotional connection aside and my objective hat on, I find the A100 to be a peppy little DSLR, a reliable work horse that I've unconditionally accepted it's strengths and its shortcomings alike. To this day, it still manages to surprise me with its image quality at times. Much like my Leica M8, it's CCD sensor packs a punch that belies it's specification. It's base ISO image quality is fantastic, with plenty of detail, adequate dynamic range, and awesome color.

Even with the newer version of the budget Tamron 18-200mm weather sealed zoom lens, the A100 focuses accurately, quietly,  and provides a ton of detail. At base ISO I easily prefer the A100's raw files to some 12-15mp cameras.

I'm quite certain once humanity moves through this current global pandemic, that I will add anew to my photographic anthology using the trusty A100.  I've accepted the fact that no matter how many cameras I test, review, or even lust after, this little Sony A100 continues to remain a dear and trustable ally; an irresistible and charming camera that I find capable and reliable. It's one of those cameras that despite it's age and limitations, begs me to use it every time I see it on my desk. I for one am proud to say that despite my vast collection of cameras, I still continue to want to make memories with the little A100. It's been good to me, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to use.

Stay focused. (and healthy please)

Let sunsets inspire you
Let your inner voices guide you
Let sunrises heal you

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your A100 description and thank you for the “emotional” approach. I am too on a journey seeking for camera design “oldies”. Well done and thanks.