Jaded is my middle name—especially when it comes to new digital cameras. I mean how juiced can you get about another point-and-shoot just because the megapixel count increased? That said, manufacturers still have some great tricks up their sleeves that’ll get a rise out of even the most jaded reviewer. The new Sony DSLR-A350 is one of them. I’ve watched for months as Sony tantalized the press with promises of a Live View for D-SLRs that actually works like the “live view” of point-and-shoot digicams where you pick the camera up, frame your shot through the LCD screen and snap the shutter. As DT readers well know, I feel Live View as implemented by other makers (Canon, Nikon, Olympus et al) is a joke. To work properly, the camera has to be held steady by a tripod and the subject must remain still. How many people shoot like this in 2008—beyond eBay Power Sellers? Six, 16, 60? Sony felt the same way and decided to create a Live View for the rest of the world. Not only that, the new DSLR-A350 has a 14.2-megapixel imager, built-in sensor shift stabilization and loads of other goodies such as an articulating 2.7-inch screen. When this one arrived, the battery was quickly put in the charger so a test drive was just a few short hours away. How was this relatively bargain-priced $799 USD D-SLR?
Features and Design
The Sony alpha DSLR-A350 is a solid, sturdy digital single lens reflex camera. Honestly it doesn’t look too much different than almost every other D-SLR out there. The camera has a matte black finish and if you covered the logos, you’d be hard pressed to tell a Canon or a Pentax apart from the Sony. Not to say they’re ugly but overall aesthetics aren’t the raison d’etre for these babies—good photos and fast response are the ticket.
The DSLR-A350 measures 5.25 x 4 x 3 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 20.5 ounces for the body alone. Add a lens like the $699 USD Carl Zeiss 16-80mm zoom (which Sony loaned to us) and you’re carrying 41 ounces (2.56 pounds). In other words, it’s a commitment not like tossing an ELPH in your pocket for casual snapshots.
The front of this D-SLR—like all others—is dominated by the lens mount. In this case it accepts all Sony glass as well as older Minolta a-type bayonet lenses. As noted in our review of the –A200, Sony doesn’t have the huge number of lens options offered by Canon, Nikon et al, but it has enough to handle most common situations. Other than a few logos, the front has an AF Assist sensor on the grip, the lens release button and keys to pop open the flash and to switch between AF and Manual Focus.
Image Courtesy of Sony
The top has a nice camera feel with a sturdy mode dial on the far left. Unlike some others in its class (such as the new $799 USD Pentax K200D) it does not have an LCD display to quickly check your settings. On the pistol grip is the shutter button and control dial for making menu adjustments. The grip has a good, comfortable feel and felt just right in my hand—please do your own ergonomic test before pulling the trigger on this one or any other camera or camcorder. Other buttons here are one for ISO (100-3200) and another for continuous shooting/self timer. Since this is a 14.2-megapixel camera for under a grand, it only takes 2.5 frames per second compared to the usual 3 fps of other D-SLRs. This frame rate drops to 2 once you engage the nearby Live View switch. Even at 2 fps this is an incredible number since it’s more like a frame every 5 minutes when using Live View from other makers! This is a bit of exaggeration but it’s better than many point-and-shoot digicams with the real live view we know and love. You’ll also find the pop-up flash and hot shoe.
The main mode dial has the usual settings including Auto, P (Program AE), A (Aperture Priority), S (Shutter Priority) and M (Manual). There are also a number of common scene modes such as Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset, Night Portrait and Flash Off. There’s nothing here that’ll surprise any photographer. And if you don’t know what they mean, the supplied 168-page Instruction Manual does a decent job explaining it all.
The rear of the DSLR-A350 has something you don’t find on run-of-the-mill D-SLRs—an articulating 2.7-inch LCD screen rated 230K pixels. When combined with Live View, you can easily hold the camera over your head and shoot over crowds—or take shots low to the ground while standing up. This is a great tool and lets you take your face away from the viewfinder. The viewfinder is surrounded by a soft rubber cup and has a diopter adjustment. Like the -A200, there’s Eye-Start AF that starts focusing on the subject when you bring the camera up to your eye. I find this annoying and turn it off but you may like the shorter focusing time.
Image Courtesy of Sony
There are the typical keys to the left of the monitor including Menu, Display, Delete and Playback. To the right is a four-way controller with center set button, a Function key and Super SteadyShot on/off to engage the sensor shift image stabilizer. This helps eliminate most but not all blur that ruins photos shot at lower shutter speeds. Other keys include power on/off, Exposure Compensation, AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) and the Smart Teleconverter button. This one is basically a digital zoom that works when you’re in the Live View mode; as with all digital zooms resolution drops when used and is not recommended for top quality.
On the right side is the CompactFlash card slot with a nearby USB out while the compartment on the left has connections for a remote and DC-in. The bottom of this Made in Japan camera has a metal tripod mount and battery compartment which is rated a good 730 shots using the viewfinder.
The alpha comes with everything you need to start shooting other than a flash memory card—neck strap, body caps, owner’s manual and CD-ROM with Picture Motion Brower ver. 2.1.02, Image Data Lightbox SR Ver. 1.0 and Image Data Converter SR ver. 2.0 for downloading and developing RAW files. The camera is available with an 18-70mm kit lens but I feel a 14MP D-SLR deserves something better. Sony does too and sent along a $699 USD Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar f/3.5-4.5 16-80mm lens. I’ve used this one in the past and was very pleased with the results. You should strongly consider this since it’s a worthwhile investment and will probably be the only lens you’ll need for years to come.
After loading a 4GB Sony UDMA 300x card (at 48 Mbps, it’s fast), it was time to start shooting.
Performance and Use
As usual I started off in Auto with Eye-Start AF disabled, in single shot mode, using basic multi-segment metering, automatic AF and the D-Range Optimizer in standard setting; white balance and ISO were auto as well. This is about as Auto as you can get. Once I took a bunch of shots in this fashion it was time to explore the various manual options, all the while using Live View, of course.
As noted, I’m a big fan of this Zeiss lens and with the camera’s 1.6x digital factor it’s 25.6-128mm in 35mm terms. This gives me the wide-angle option for portraits and landscapes plus I can zoom in on objects that are fairly far away. Good stuff. I took the -A350 down to the beach and visited local nurseries to get a nice jolt of spring color.
On to Live View—or as Sony calls it Quick AF Live View. What the company did was add another sensor to the camera to handle this feature so it’s amazingly faster than competitors. You just flick the switch on top and the LCD becomes your viewfinder. It’s so much better than the others, you’ll flip. Everything isn’t perfect as there’s some blur as you move positions but it clears up quickly as you focus. And there’s a bit of lag as the camera saves the files. The other issue is overall image blur since you’re holding the camera at arm’s length rather than pressed against your face with your elbows locked. The built-in sensor shift stabilization helps but you have to be careful. Still the fact you can hold the camera over your head to see and snap your subject is wonderful. Sony claims 2 frames per second in Live View but my results seemed a tad slower than that. Faster would be better but what can I say? I really liked it. Hopefully other makers will take this approach or stop saying how wonderful their Live View is.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Live View is all well and good but this is a 14.2-megapixel D-SLR and quality photos are what you want—along with that cool LCD screen. As noted, I did a lot of shooting outdoors as well as a still life indoors to see how the camera handled ISO up to 3200. Once done it was time to turn out a raft of 8.5×11 full-bleed prints. Actually it’s time to start turning out 11x17s and 13x19s with these new 2008 D-SLRs but that’s another story.
My results were quite good. Colors were very lifelike with popping yellows of forsythia bushes while early spring blooms looked very realistic including reds, blues and purples. When using the viewfinder I didn’t really notice the 2.5 fps second speed versus 3 found on competitors. As noted there was a definite lag in continuous mode during Live View sessions—about the only drawback I found in this iteration of the feature. Shots indoors were quite good with digital noise starting to appear at 800 (but not too bad) while 1600 was decent and 3200 only good for small prints—if you had to use it all.
This one is really a no-brainer. At $799 USD for the body only, the Sony alpha DSLR-A350 is a terrific camera for the price. I’d avoid the kit lens and spend a little extra for the 16-80mm Zeiss edition–and you’ll be set for years. This D-SLR has a nice, solid feel, is easy to operate, takes quality images, has built-in stabilization, sensor cleaning and enough tweaks to keep you punching menu options until you get completely bored. Fortunately the photographic results of the –A350 are far from boring. And then there’s Quick AF Live View. Did I mention I liked it?
• Fine 14MP images
• At last! Live View that makes sense
• Loaded with features
• Could be faster (fps) especially in Live View
• Noticeable noise above 800 ISO
• Forget the kit lens