Minolta DiMAGE A1
A 5 Mp 7x Zoom SLR That Anticipates Moving Moments

Minolta made its name years back with 35mm SLR autofocus cameras and has since gone on to bring their expertise to digital cameras as well. So, when the Minolta DiMAGE A1 digital camera was introduced I was curious to test its various focusing modes and features. This report concentrates on those features. For a full line of specifications on the Minolta DiMAGE A1 please see their website at www.minoltausa.com. (By the way, due to a merging of the companies they are now called Konica/Minolta.)

I put the DiMAGE A1 in standard burst mode, and followed the movements of these monkeys, at 7x zoom plus 2x digital. Cropped, with contrast adjustment.
Photos © 2003, Jack Neubart, All Rights Reserved

DiMAGE A1: What We Tested
· 3D Predictive Focus
· Tracking AF
· Continuous AF
· Anti-shake System
· Standard and high-speed burst modes
· Electro-mechanical 7x optical zoom; 2x digital tele
· Macro; manual focus override
· 5-megapixel progressive primary-color CCD (effective pixels)

My attention was drawn to the bees swarming the early autumn flowers. There was a veritable beehive of activity, and I knew what all the buzz was about: some guy with a digital camera--me! I approached cautiously. I didn't know the bees in my Brooklyn neighborhood to be particularly malicious, but why take chances?

Despite its advanced micro-technology, the A1 had considerable difficulty focusing and responding quickly enough under these very low-light levels in a rainforest exhibit. I was surprised to get this picture, captured using an external flash.

The DiMAGE A1 ($1249 MSRP, $999 street) was at the ready, with the 7x zoom lens extended all the way out (200mm), the macro switch engaged. Unfortunately, macro is not continuous, so it's either this or set the lens at the widest position (28mm), which would put me nose to proboscis, a situation sure to make one of us uncomfortable. (But you have to love this electro-mechanical zoom! Sure makes zooming quick and positive--albeit requiring two hands.) I had no qualms about using flash--and have done so many times before with hymenopterans (bees and wasps), but I'd planned to use burst mode, at 2 fps, and I thought recycling on the built-in flash would have slowed things down. I later learned that would not be the case.

Whether right side up or upside down, these grasshoppers refused to remain still, and the A1's predictive autofocus did a nice job in either situation--with the built-in flash.

Following The Pollen Masters
There were two more things I needed to do to ensure that the camera would correctly focus on a moving subject. It revolves around what Minolta calls "3D Predictive Focus."

In no particular order, I had to move the mechanical focus switch on the left side of the camera to "Continuous AF" mode. And I had to set Tracking AF in the menu (screen 4) to "on." Otherwise, I'd have to refocus each time the bee moved.

Interestingly, it's not enough to select Continuous AF or Tracking AF alone. Both must be engaged simultaneously to enable 3D Predictive Focus, where the camera focuses on movement in three-dimensional space, anticipating where the subject will move even after the shutter is released. Hence, practically guaranteeing greater success--at least in theory.

The swans swam very close by. Their body tonality apparently contributed to a focusing problem, although I did manage a few good shots. Cropped, with Auto Color adjustment in Photoshop.

Right away, as soon as Continuous AF is engaged, you notice the cursor/cross hairs changing to green. This also disengages the option to switch between wide field and spot AF, an option available with single AF mode. I tend to shy away from wide field AF, because it always manages to lock in on the wrong thing, at least from my experience with this camera. So I normally opted for spot AF when not in Continuous focusing mode.

Move this same switch over further and you encounter full manual focus. But before you go there, I should point out that a menu option lets you employ the manual focus ring to override autofocus. I reserve full manual for still life, with the camera on a tripod. The electronic viewfinder, I should add, has enough contrast and clarity to allow you to manually focus with confidence, under normal light levels.

I zoomed the DiMAGE A1 to the max and employed macro, then set Continuous AF and Tracking AF (for 3D Predictive Focus), and followed this bee. The camera performed admirably, capturing the bee (by daylight) in reasonably sharp focus, in burst mode. Images cropped down to 1750x1620 (approx) from 2560x1920 pixels, with a contrast adjustment.

Now, you may be asking, why not use the high-speed Continuous mode, which delivers 2.8 fps capture? Because the tradeoff is that focusing would be locked in after the first exposure. Moreover, the screen freezes during the sequence, so that there is no longer a live image. And given a subject continually moving from one plane of focus to another, I opted to slow things down to 2 fps, watch the action unfolding, and shoot for pictures as sharply focused as possible.

Not Quite A Shaky Situation
One more thing. The DiMAGE A1 offers image stabilization ("Anti-shake System," in Minolta parlance). It was difficult to say with any certainty that this feature actually helped. I imagine it did. The only problem is that image stabilization correlates to light levels, dropping out when the lighting is too low--exactly when it's needed most. So, after a while, I stopped paying attention to the viewfinder indicator and decided to concentrate solely on good camera handling technique to leverage my chances at sharp pictures.

So, there we were, with me hand holding the A1 (not to be confused with an old Canon SLR of the same name, or a steak sauce)--and the bee, feeding on nectar. I could take either of two tacks: Focus on a flower and wait for the bee to arrive, then ease up on the shutter button and again press down partway with the bee in my cross hairs, or try to track a bee moving from flower to flower.

Fortunately, the flowers were clumped fairly tightly, so that following one insect from blossom to blossom was not entirely out of the question. But it made more sense to wait by one bloom, and when the bee arrived, set the process in motion. Then as it moved about on the flower, and even when it took off and alighted on a neighboring bloom, I could follow it. Admittedly, I wasn't successful with every attempt, and perhaps critical focus was not achieved (defining critical focus as the bee's eyes). Still, the results were largely acceptable, enough to translate into a success. It worked with daylight, and with the built-in flash as well. Shooting with the built-in flash meant removing the lens shade (since it obstructed the light).

Moving On To Mating Grasshoppers
Two little known facts of life: First, mating insects do not stand still--when observed, anyway. Two, they remain together for quite a while, so, unless they move out of range or behind some leaf clutter, you stand a good chance of capturing them. Because of the movement, I was very happy to have the DiMAGE A1 with me, again relying on auto-tracking and predictive focus. This time, I employed the camera's built-in flash for most shots (lots of shade), with the same macro settings. For flash exposures, the camera remained in aperture-priority mode, stopped down to (or near) minimum aperture, for enhanced depth of field.

For this series, I opted for single-shot drive mode, since I was not especially interested in capturing a sequence. Once I had a mating pair in focus, I let the camera do its thing. I watched the Continuing AF cross hairs track the line of the insects as they moved. The A1's 3D Predictive Focus certainly alleviated any concerns I might have had with regard to movement.

Moments later--keep in mind that this was late in the day--I'd discovered an interesting moth fluttering about and was determined to capture it digitally. Here I had to remove the camera from my eye and work with the external monitor. Holding the strap out of the way, I lowered the camera, pressed the shutter button, and waited to hear the audible focus-lock signal, then took the picture. I exposed each frame as the camera came progressively closer to the lepidopteran. Good thing, too. I'd only managed a handful of exposures before someone walked past and frightened it off, so that it disappeared from sight.

At The Zoo
It was now time to turn my attention to somewhat larger subjects, so I headed for New York City's Central Park Zoo. I brought along the Maxxum Flash 5600HS(D) and mounted it atop the hot shoe after entering the tropical rainforest building. Under these low-light levels, the camera's focusing system was fidgety, often having a problem locking onto the animals. Also, in burst mode, the EVF failed to remain in enhanced mode (where it automatically brightens to compensate for the darkness) after the first frame, making it nearly impossible to track my subjects. Clearly the DiMAGE A1 does not shine in dimly lit environments.

I fared much better with the snow monkeys and swans outdoors--both in one exhibit. Here the camera was set to standard burst mode. The black and white water fowl, at one point or another, presented a small focusing problem at close range (tonality was the apparent culprit). On the other hand, even after adding 2x digital zoom, with the lens stretched to the max, I was treated to several very touching moments of the mother simian and her baby off in the distance.

Give a baby a toy and just wait for things to happen, especially when it's one of her favorites. Apparently, at the moment of exposure, the camera locked on to the phone (or her hand), since that is in sharper focus. The Maxxum flash was aimed at the ceiling for a softer light that better suited a 1 year old.

The DiMAGE A1: 3D Predictive Focus And People
The Minolta DiMAGE A1 proved itself a capable camera in the photo studio as well. With the camera in manual exposure mode, I photographed two models, lighting with Interfit flat panel strobes (from Paterson Photographic, www.patersonphotographic.com). I employed one cyberFLASH 300 ws studio flat panel strobe and one eFLASH battery-operated unit. These lights produce a soft, flattering light. One light was hooked up to the camera, by way of the standard sync socket on the body, with the other light triggered via the built-in photocell. Since the camera was handheld, I relied on predictive focus and didn't have to worry that any movement by me or the model would result in a focusing error.

Exposure control was perhaps a little unconventional. The A1 stops down only as far as f/11. That was not enough to prevent overexposure with these lights positioned as close as they were (necessary for a maximum soft lighting effect). However, I'd soon discovered that I could use higher shutter speeds (as if engaging high-speed sync mode on some 35mm SLRs) to ensure a proper exposure.

When it came to photographing a belly dancer in a supper club, the A1 was disappointing. I used an external Maxxum flash with the dancer, with the camera in program mode. When confronted with a subject in constant motion under very subdued lighting, I found I had to release the shutter well in advance and hope for the best.

Finally, at a friend's home, I focused on a 1-year-old in her high chair, both playing with a toy phone and being fed. The lighting here was considerably brighter than in the club, but flash was still necessary--bounce flash, in this case. I aimed the DiMAGE A1 in the direction of the baby's face, and awaited the right moment. Sometimes the toy grabbed the focusing sensor's attention, but not to the point of spoiling the shot.