I have a Canon 5D and although it produces impressive pictures, I found too many of my pictures were blurred and I found myself not carrying my 5D around as it was a heavy camera (front heavy and hard to hold still IMHO) with the 24-105mm lens attached (hence the blurred shots). I started to look for a smaller and lighter camera - comfort was a major issue as was the size of the viewfinder and quality of the LCD as the 5D's LCD is frankly poor - very hard to tell if something was sharply focused or the appropriate colour. I tried out the following:
Pentax K20 - didn't like the focusing system or the LCD menu system, but otherwise impressed with the camera, though still a bit on the weighty side. Also, it's not a Nikon or Canon which is attractive given their saturation of the market - it's good not to go with the herd sometimes!
Nikon D80 - uncomfortably ergonomics for me, as with the D300, the thumb rest digs right into the lower joint of my thumb making it hard to hold firmly, I also didn't like the reversal of the focus and zoom rings on their lenses (focus at the back, zoom at the front).
Nikon D300 - very nice camera, but almost 100g heavier than the 5D!
Canon 40D - very similar to the 5D in terms of size, weight and shape. Comfortable but bland ergonomics and still on the heavy side. Nice big viewfinder, very impressive large information in the viewfinder too, compatible with my existing lenses. But it's a Canon (I have an aversion to monopolies or duopolies - it's not good for consumers or innovation!) and with their quality 17-80 lens it was going to weigh little less than the 5D.
Olympus 510 - brilliant size, weight and comfortable ergonomics, good kit lenses. I don't like the 4/3rds system (a smaller sensor just can't be better as I found with comparisons to the 5D and it makes the viewfinder very small) and their menu system is plain ugly. With a 900,000 pixel moveable screen and cleaner menu, Olympus would corner the small DSLR market.
I decided to buy an A700 with a Carl Zeiss 16-80 lens and have used it for a couple of weeks and overall I am very happy - I use it far more than the 5D as it is light and small and easy to carry. On the downside, the picture quality is not as good as the 5D especially at high ISOs where the Sony is noticeably grainy. Amateur Photographer has a review in their current issue which shows that in terms of IQ, resolution and noise the 5D beats the D300 and 40D, so the A700 really can't compete. But there's no point having the best camera sitting at home gathering dust.
Sony A700 Pros:
- Lightweight and small compared to others in class.
- Very nice ergonomics and comfort in the hand. Easy to hold very tight with very little camera wobble compared to the 5D which is front-heavy and less easy to hold still.
- Brilliant LCD, easy to check colour accuracy and sharpness - don't even need to zoom to check focus. Sony and Nikon are miles ahead of Canon, Olympus and Pentax here.
- Carl Zeiss lens is lightweight and small too, with a very useful range.
- Very bright and large viewfinder - which is so important and put me off Canon's 20D and 30D a few year's ago which have small, pokey viewfinders.
- Anti-shake device is superb, makes a huge difference and in my view is better than the lens version with Canon and Nikon. It applies to all lenses which is a major plus.
- I love the shake level meter in the viewfinder window. It is brilliant and almost on its own has made me a convert to the A700. A little chart fluctuates depending on camera shake, so you wait until the chart drops and then take the picture - it is so helpful.
- White balance settings have 7 variable settings (-3, 0, +3) which is very helpful.
- Lovely clean menu system, easier and quicker than Canon and up there with Nikon's which is also lovely to use. Olympus and Pentax really needs to take note, as their menus are cluttered and not intuitive. The A700's menu is a pleasure to navigate.
- Dedicated ISO, drive, WB and exposure buttons is very quick and useful, all are large and easy to press and can be used without even taking one's eye away from the viewfinder. Also a custom function button (NOT a direct printer button like Canon!). I don't miss the top LCD screen at all - big buttons are more helpful!
- Compressed RAW looks as good as RAW but takes less space and time.
- Outdoor shots are very sharp, very colourful and contrasty. I mainly take travel and outdoor pics so this camera really suits my style and needs.
Sony A700 Cons:
- Picture quality and resolution is not up to Canon 5D standards (but matches 40D and D80 etc). I appreciate they are not like-for-like cameras or in the same class, and the 5D is full frame etc, but it is 3+ years old. My experience is borne out by Amateur Photographer - full frame is best. I should add that at low ISOs (200 or below) and shooting RAW or cRAW the Sony output is almost as good as the Canon, which when coupled with the Sony's size, weight, LCD and anti-shake device is enough for me.
- Where the Sony suffers is at higher ISOs. At 800 the 5D has almost zero grain or noise whereas the Sony, to me, is noisy in the shadows and darkers areas of the pic. If you mainly shoot indoors or in low light, this may not be the right camera for you.
- Poor dedicated range of lenses. Not as many lenses as available for Canon and not the same quality either in terms of build and glass. Too many of the Sony lenses I have read about have had poor reviews. No problems if you have Minolta glass - but again, not the range or quality of Canon.
- Too few Sony lenses have USM/HSM/SSM etc motors. The Zeiss lens is quick but not as quick as my Canon lenses with USM motors. More importantly the Zeiss lens is very "squeaky" in use - when going from completely out of focus to focus there is an audible whirr and squeak as it is not an SSM lens. Only the high-end telephotos have SSM. Also, many of the Sigma lenses don't have HSM while they do for Canon and Nikon mounts making them also loud and slower.
- WB under incandescent light is poor - very orange cast and even with the parameters being changed, is still badly inaccurate.
- There is no ISO reading in the viewfinder info bar which would be helpful and is standard at this level of DSLR.
- The AEL button is very raised away from the body, as a result, when pressed, it is hard to keep my glasses close to the viewfinder and my view becomes distorted - this is actually quite annoying, but nevertheless not a deal breaker by any means.
- The rubber grips on the lens are very fine and are a dust magnet. It's a really minor point, but after one week my Carl Zeiss lens looked shabby because any dust and dirt gets stuck in the fine rubber ridges and is really hard to clean.
Overall the Sony A700 is a really excellent camera if you shoot at low ISOs (800 or under), mainly shoot outdoors and want something light and compact to carry all day. if you are coming from film where shooting higher than ISO 400 was virtually unheard of, this is a great camera.