Even in this era of rapidly plunging HDTV, Blu-ray disc player and game console prices, some devices remain very expensive. Case in point: full-frame DSLRs. These cameras use sensors that are the same size as a frame of 35mm film, so photo quality is outstanding, but you’ll pay for this performance. Until the introduction of the new A850, the most “affordable” full-frame models were the 21.1-megapixel Canon 5D Mark II and 24.6MP Sony alpha DSLR-A900, each $2,699 for the body alone. Yeow! This fall, Sony introduced the slightly modified 24.6MP A850 for $1,999, a hefty $700 savings. This is a good drop, but still it’s a rarified atmosphere. That said we couldn’t wait to find out if the new Sony was worth the new “low” price.
Features and Design
When you’re in the full-frame neighborhood, forget any thoughts of small, light, pocketable cameras. Think big and bulky, around 30 ounces for the A850 body alone, compared to less than 10 for the typical digicam. And that’s not counting the battery and whichever lens you choose. In our case, Sony loaned us a $1,599 f/2.8 24-70mm Zeiss zoom, so the entire package weighed 71 ounces – over four pounds. A magnesium-alloy frame accounts for part of the weight, construction that separates entry-level DSLRs from their bigger brothers. For the record, the camera measures 6.5 inches wide, 4.7 tall, 3.3 deep. It’s big, all right.
Overall, you’d be hard pressed to tell any of the full-frame cameras apart if you covered their logos. The A850 has the classic black-bodied DSLR vibe, but in this case there’s a white Sony logo and model number along with an orange “alpha” designation. The lens opening dominates the front and accepts all Sony glass, along with older Konica and Minolta AF lenses. Since the sensor is the size of a frame of 35mm film, there’s no digital factor multiplying the focal length of the lens (typically 1.5x or 1.6x). Whichever lens you attach has the stipulated focal length, which is critical for wide-angle shooting. Therefore, the Zeiss lens used during testing was 24-70mm, not 36-105mm. For photographers who love a super wide-angle perspective, this is a Godsend.
Also on the front is an AF Assist lamp, very cool Intelligent Preview button, focus mode switch, lens release button and flash sync terminal. On the substantial pistol grip is a remote sensor, front control dial and shutter button.
The top offers access to some key controls including white balance, ISO, burst mode, exposure compensation and a button that illuminates the LCD status screen. On the pentaprism mirror assembly is a hot shoe – just like other high-end DSLRs, the A850 does not have a built-in flash. Even though ISO hits 6400, definitely consider buying one at some point. There’s also a mode dial with the basics—auto, program AE, aperture- and shutter-priority, along with full manual. There are also three options to register your personal settings. Since this is a serious camera for serious shutterbugs, there are no scene modes.
On most cameras a 3-inch LCD screen would dominate the rear real estate, but not so with this wide-bodied DSLR. The monitor is a good one, rated 921K pixels, the standard for top-end models. You’ll use it a lot with the Intelligent Preview button (more on this in the performance section). The A850 does not have Live View or HD video recording, features you’ll find on many new DSLRs for a lot less money. We’re not huge fans of either features for DSLRs, so it was no great loss. At the camera’s press introduction, we asked Sony execs why they didn’t incorporate such hot features into this edition. Representatives said it was subject to great internal debate, but they ultimately weren’t satisfied with DSLR HD video as currently implemented, so they decided to pass. Whether this was spin or reality, we’ll find out in 2010 with the next round of introductions from the company.
The A850 has a large, bright viewfinder with 98-percent frame coverage, compared to the 100 percent of the more expensive A900. A diopter control is nearby to fine tune the view for your eyesight. To the left of the LCD are typical buttons: menu, display, delete, playback. On the right side is the AE lock button, surrounded by a metering switch. Next to it is the AF/MF button, and the rear control dial. Below them is a four-way joystick control, custom and function keys, along with the SteadyShot Inside on and off switch. All Sony DSLRs have built-in sensor shift image stabilization, so every lens you attach is stabilized, a big savings compared to Nikon and Canon, which charge extra for stabilized glass.
On the right side is a dual card slot (CompactFlash, Memory Stick Pro Duo) while compartments on the left have mini HDMI, USB, DC-in and remote connections. The bottom of the Made-In-Japan camera has a tripod mount and battery compartment. The battery is rated 880 shots, per the CIPA standard. Naturally, if you attach a flash or constantly use the LCD, this number goes down.
What’s In The Carton
In a very large box is the body, battery, charger, strap, USB and A/V cables, various caps, as well as 172-page owner’s manual. The CD-ROM has Image Data Converter SR, Image Data Lightbox SR, Remote Camera Control and Picture Motion Browser for developing RAW files and managing your images.
With battery charged, cards loaded (4GB CF, 1GB MS) and the f/2.8 24-70mm Zeiss lens attached, it was time to start shooting.
Performance and Use
The Sony alpha DSLR-A850 is a 24.6-megapixel camera, so it captures 6048 x 4032 pixel files in JPEG, or a variety of RAW formats. We started off in JPEG extra fine in auto, then moved to the manual options using RAW as well. During our review period, we served as designated photographer for a company picnic, plus had opportunities to shoot a variety of landscapes and indoor scenes.
First let’s state that the A850, though bulky, was not that difficult to handle. Controls (other than one) were logically positioned with a nicely-placed thumb rest featuring an anti-skid surface. Depending on your lens, you’ll get right into the flow of framing your subject and snapping away. Although the imaging device and electronics of the
A850 and the more expensive A900 are the same, this camera shoots at three frames per second, versus five. It’s a fairly substantial difference, but three frames per second worked well with kids playing soccer, jumping into pools, and so on. Top shutter speed is 1/8000th of a second, the same as the A900.
The menu system is also easy to navigate via the joystick and, as you’d expect, you can adjust as many image parameters as you like. One of our favorite features was the Intelligent Preview button, which is awkwardly located on the lower right of the lens mount. Sony engineers should move this to the back in a more accessible spot. When you press it, the camera displays the image you’re about to shoot on the LCD. At that point, you can make adjustments (white balance, exposure compensation, shutter speed) to make sure you have a properly exposed photo. Once you perform your tweaks, you reframe and snap the shutter. This is a fine tool for all photographers, no matter the skill level.
Once the shots were taken, we examined them closely on a monitor (up to 600-percent blowups), played them back on a 50-inch HDTV and made prints. Let’s cut to the chase: The results were terrific. Colors were extremely rich and saturated, but not too much (we shot in the standard mode). There is a distinct difference zooming in on full-frame files versus images taken by less expensive APS-C DSLRs. There is a depth and three-dimensional feel that’s hard to describe, but if you see it, you’ll know exactly what we mean—almost like the difference between DVD and Blu-ray shown on a great TV. You may not know the intricacies of the competing systems, but you know one has a good picture while the other is mouth watering.
The prints were excellent matching – you guessed it – the feel of 35mm film. Another plus? The huge files let you perform extensive cropping and you’ll still end up with a quality print. There’d be no problems making 17×22 prints with the original files.
As for digital noise, the bête noir of point-and-shoot digicams and some entry-level DSLRs, it didn’t appear until ISO 800 and wasn’t a problem until hitting 1250. At 3200 and 6400, quality was bad no matter what level of DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization) we used. Given this, we’d strongly urge anyone buying this camera pick up a flash, just for the fill setting if you’re a diehard ambient light shooter.
It’s hard to call a $1,999 DSLR a great deal, but the Sony alpha DSLR-A850 is one. It’s the cheapest 24.6MP full-frame model available, $700 less than the Sony A900 and six grand less than the 24.5MP Nikon D3x. The camera requires a serious commitment in dollars (our test rig with lens has an MSRP of close to $3,600). It also demands you spend the time learning its intricacies. We had it for just a few weeks and really enjoyed every minute of it.
- Great 24-megapixel images
- Intelligent Preview a real aid
- Built-in image sensor-shift stabilization
- Tweaks galore
- Still expensive
- Noise at ISO 1250 and higher
- Poorly positioned preview button
- No built-in flash; it’s a must-have add-on
- No Live View or HD video