Camera companies really want you to move from point-and-shoots to D-SLRs. The reason is pretty simple—they make more money. It’s no secret (even though over 35 million digicams will be purchased this year) that prices are dropping. To make up the dollar difference companies are driving down entry-level D-SLR prices–hoping you’ll spend more jack if you’re looking at a fully-featured point-and-shoot like the Canon G9 ($499 USD) or Sony DSC-H9 ($429 USD). D-SLRs are also enticing if you’re a seasoned digicam owner who is sick and tired of slow-acting shutters and even slower shot-to-shot times. Enter the new Sony alpha DSLR-A200, the replacement for the company’s entry-level D-SLR, the –A100. For $699 USD, you get a 10MP digicam, built-in image stabilization, anti-dust circuitry and 3 frames-per-second shooting. This speed and a D-SLR’s ability to quickly focus and snap photos are the biggest appeal—along with overall improved picture quality with less digital noise since all D-SLRs use larger APS-C sized imagers.
We thought it would be a nice test to try out the –A200—especially after testing the Canon EOS 40D, a newer D-SLR that costs twice as much. Sure it’s not fair but who said life was all peaches and cream? Certainly not us…
Features and Design
The Sony alpha DSLR-A200 looks like a younger brother to the 40D. It too has a black body with textured finish. Measuring 5.4 x 3.87 x 2.2, it tips the scales at 18.8 ounces without battery and lens, closer to 30 with them. The 40D weighs 37 ounces combined. The main reason for the difference is overall build quality—the A200 is made primarily of plastic compared to the 40D’s magnesium alloy frame. Yes, we know we really should be comparing this camera to the new 12.2-megapixel Canon XSi and 10MP Nikon D60 but they’re not available yet (April and March, respectively). And the 8MP Canon Digital Rebel XTi for $599 USD (body only) is really a graybeard although it’s a solid camera. Back to the A200…
Like all D-SLRs, the front is dominated by the lens mount. In this case, the camera accepts all Sony alpha glass as well as older Minolta a-type bayonet mount lenses. Sony doesn’t have the huge assortment as Canon or Nikon but as of 2008, there are around 30 including a new f/2.8 24-70mm for $1,750 USD. (This is the other reason camera companies want you to want the D-SLR switch—once you start a collection many people get obsessed like Amy Winehouse and her tats.) That said you really don’t have to go beyond the 3.8x 18-70mm supplied with the kit for everyday shooting.
The front also has a lens release button, AF/MF switch a flash open button and some subtle logos. The pistol grip is O.K., nothing like the heft of the 40D but it was comfortable. You know the drill—try any camera in the real world before you buy since everyone’s hands are different. Also on the grip are the shutter button, a jog dial to move through the menus and an AF illuminator/self timer sensor.
The top of the A200 is very plain—no handy LCD screen here—with buttons for ISO, burst mode and a main mode dial. This has all the settings first-time D-SLR owners would need including Auto, no flash, P for program, Aperture and Shutter Priority as well as full Manual. There are common scene modes as well including portrait, landscape, macro, sports, night portrait and sunset. This is not much different than what you’ll find on a quality point-and-shoot making it pretty seamless moving into the D-SLR arena. The top also has a hot shoe for optional flashes as well as a built-in flash that automatically pops open when the camera senses the light is too dim.
The back has a good 2.7-inch LCD rated 230K pixels. Since this camera doesn’t have Live View, the screen is simply for adjusting menus, checking status and reviewing your shots. Two buttons on the rear top right let you enlarge or reduce the size of the image. A nice feature is the fact the status menu properly orients itself as you move the camera from horizontal to vertical positions. The A200 has a bright viewfinder with a 95 percent field of view and a diopter control. It’s surrounded by a rubber edging for comfort and there are Eye-Start Autofocus sensors below the viewfinder itself. In theory Eye-Start is kind of cool—the moment you bring the camera up to your face, it starts focusing on the subject so you’ll be able to quickly capture a shot. Personally I found it annoying as the camera was constantly focusing as I moved about. Fortunately you can turn this feature off—which I did.
Unlike the 40D which had its main buttons on the bottom of a 3-inch screen, the A200 has them in the traditional spot flanking the left side of the LCD. There are buttons for Menu, Display, Delete and Playback, pretty standard stuff. What’s not standard—at least on Canon and Nikon D-SLRs—is the Super SteadyShot on/off switch on the bottom right. Sony alphas have sensor shift image stabilization so every lens you attach is stabilized, letting you shoot in available light with less blur. This is not a panacea as once you shoot at very slow shutter speeds (1/15 or less) and relatively low ISO your images are going to blur unless you’re made of steel. I had a lot of this using the supplied telephoto with its f/4.5-5.6 aperture. You can always opt for more expensive f/2.8 lenses, buy a monopod or use the flash. Still Super SteadyShot is a good thing and you don’t have to buy more expensive stabilized lenses like you do with the Big Two.
Note: Cameras with built-in sensor shift stabilization must be hurting Canon and Nikon since their new entry-level D-SLRs (Canon XSi, Nikon D60) come with stabilized lenses. Competition is a wonderful thing…
Other controls on the rear include Fn (Function) to access items such as focusing and flash modes, AF area and the D-Range Optimizer, a setting that adds detail to shadowed areas. There’s also a four-way controller with center set button, one for AEL (auto exposure Lock) and exposure compensation. On the right side is a slot for CompactFlash cards but you can use Memory Stick Duo with an optional adapter. Here’s you’ll also find the mini USB out (cable supplied). The left side has a compartment for a remote control and DC-in (both items are optional). The bottom has the battery compartment and tripod mount.
The Sony DSLR-A200 comes with a basic package including straps, caps, cables, battery/charger, a quick start guide and a 160-page owner’s manual. The CD-ROM has Picture Motion Browser Ver. 2.1.02, Image Data Lightbox SR and Image Data Converter for transferring images and developing RAW files. As mentioned, it comes with a kit lens (18-70mm) for $699 or $899 USD with an additional 75-300mm lens.
With a charged battery and a 2-gig 100x Kingston card it was time to take some images.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Performance and Use
There’s a reason D-SLRs are more popular than ever. You turn the power on, the camera’s ready to fire in around a second and you’re good to go. Even with the Eye-Start Autofocus system turned off, the A200 grabs focus quite quickly. Needless to say, click the shutter and your image is captured. This one is rated 3 frames per second at full resolution and it’ll take 6 RAW shots before stopping. If you’re in JPEG Fine, you can keep firing until your card is filled. This is miles ahead of any point-and-shoot but nothing like the more expensive 40D that’s rated 6.5 fps and takes 17 RAW files before giving it up. Higher-priced cameras have more processing power to deal with the onslaught of files. They also have beefed up mirror and shutter assemblies to move more quickly. If your dream is to shoot the cover for SI, consider a more expensive camera but if you’re capturing the kids in motion on the soccer field, you’ll be fine with this one.
I started off shooting in Auto, JPEG Fine (3872×2592 pixels) with the D-Range Optimizer set at Standard. The camera has Creative Styles that let you change the image’s overall tone. I used Standard (but there’s Vivid, B&W and Adobe RGB). White balance and ISO were auto as well initially but then I moved into the manual modes and engaged the burst mode.
The –A200 is a responsive little camera. It starts in about a second and shutter speed is very fast. The –A200 has 9 auto focus points—no cross type—as you’ll find in more expensive D-SLRs. For the most part this was a non-issue but the 75-300mm definitely had trouble dealing with scenes with falling snow (yes, it did finally snow in New Jersey). Since the –A200 has a 1.6x digital factor, this lens translates to 120-480mm in 35mm terms, a pretty powerful zoom for those trying to capture a running soccer player. Definitely use the burst mode in those situations; the camera was very close to the 3 fps spec given by Sony and it’s a huge step from a point-and-shoot. It also doesn’t compare to the 40D, but it’s $500 USD cheaper.
One of the biggest differences between this model and the older Sony DSLR-A100 is ISO; it jumps from 1600 to 3200 with the new edition. I shot a number of images in Shutter Priority stepping up from 100-3200. The results were as expected. Between 100-400 there was hardly any noise. Once you hit 800 things started to get the digital noise storm. Beyond that it was very noticeable but I was pleasantly surprised at indoor photos at 1600 and 3200. Still you should keep the ISO at 800 or preferably below for images with some pop.
I took many shots in the various manual modes—you definitely need to read the owner’s manual to get the most of this D-SLR and any other for that matter; newbies should consider it required reading. Once I downloaded the images, it was time to view the 8.5×11 full-bleed prints.
For the most part there were no surprises when I reviewed the prints. A colorful beach ball framed by the snow had very accurate colors and looked very lifelike. A snow-capped mailbox was also spot-on. Indoor shots with available sunshine also were very good showing plenty of detail. As noted earlier, experimenting with the ISOs didn’t shock me. Up to 400 there was little noise, a lot more at 800 and 1600/3200 would be relegated to small prints at best.
I generally liked the DSLR-A200. This entry-level D-SLR has a lot of things going for it: quick focusing, fast shutter speed, lots of tweaks for those who want them plus it captures good 10MP stills with accurate colors and nice contrast. If it were my money, I’d stick with the basic kit with the 18-70mm lens. Then if you feel that it’s not powerful enough, save your money and purchase a higher-quality zoom (Zeiss or G lens) with a speedier aperture than the f/4.5-5.6 75-300mm bundled in the $900 USD package. This is all stated with the premise you do not own any lenses from older film SLRs. If that’s the case, stick to your “family.” Those moving up from a point-and-shoot will be happy with the A200—especially when they capture a winning goal or a terrific smile your old camera would’ve missed.
• Solid, accurate photos
• 3 fps speed
• Nice 2.7-inch LCD
• Digital noise at 800 and above
• Avoid the 75-300mm bundled zoom